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Category: art and illustration (Page 1 of 12)

Art and illustration at rightreading.com

This post will be sticky in the “art and illustration” category. This is the parent category that includes graphic design, photography, photoshop, and typography posts, so there will be some redunduncy with those child categories.

For a gallery of some of my own artwork, click this screenshot:

Vitruvian Man (detail), by Leonardo da Vinci.

On Aspect Ratios

La condition humaine, 1933, by René Magritte. Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee1987.55.1.

La condition humaine, 1933, by René Magritte. Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee1987.55.1. The aspect ratio of the work on Magritte’s easel is about 1:1.2.

Most photographic and print publication work involves operating within rectangular frames. The relationship of width to height is the aspect ratio, expressed as, for example, 1:1 for a square, 1:1.5 for a 6 x 9 book, or 1:2  for a sheet that is twice as wide as it is tall. Conventionally, the width is stated first: that 6 x 9 book is in portrait format, whereas a 9 x 6 book would be landscape, bound on the short side, and most inconvenient to read.

A special case is the golden section or golden ratio, a rectangle with the proportion 1:1.618 (between 3/5ths and 5/8ths). In this rectangle the smaller dimension is to the larger as the larger is to the sum. In other words, 1 is to 1.618 as 1.618 is to 2.618. And as 2.618 is to 4.236, and so on. This relationship, which can be extended indefinitely, was known since classical times, and it underlies the Fibonacci Series and the modular architecture of Le Corbusier, among other expressions. Gustav Theodor Fechner, a German scientist, studied people’s responses to rectangular shapes in 1876 and concluded that the golden section is the most pleasing, though his methodology and results have been questioned. But other aspect ratios also have historic and aesthetic associations.

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"Fritillaria" (detail), 1915, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

“Fritillaria,” 1915, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

"Fritillaria," 1915, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

“Fritillaria,” 1915, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Scottish, 1868-1928). Pencil and watercolour on paper, 25.3 x 20.2 cm. Hunterian Art Gallery Mackintosh collections, GLAHA 41015.

Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing,something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful — more lasting than life itself.
— Charles Rennie Mackintosh, from “Seemliness” (1902 lecture)

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Albrecht Altdorfer, Countryside of Woods with Saint George Fighting the Dragon (detail), 1510.

Albrecht Altdorfer, Forest Scene with Saint George Fighting the Dragon, 1510

Countryside of Woods with Saint George Fighting the Dragon, 1510, by Albrecht Altdorfer (German, 1480-1538). Oil and parchment on linden wood, 8.9 × 11.1 in. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Forest Scene with Saint George Fighting the Dragon, 1510, by Albrecht Altdorfer (German, 1480–1538). Oil and parchment on linden wood, 8.9 × 11.1 in. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Albrecht Altdorfer, a contemporary of Copernicus who worked in Regensburg (today a German city of 138,0000 near the Austria and Czechia borders), was a leader of the Danube school of painting. These painters spearheaded a move toward landscape painting in its own right, as opposed to using landscape mainly as a background for setting classical and biblical scenes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in this small oil painting. St. George and the dragon are dwarfed by trees in a woodsy setting. In fact, some of the leaves appear nearly as big as the dragon, whose appearance is more that of a hapless toad of the traditional ferocious fire breather. Many critics, such as Linda Murray in The High Renaissance and Mannerism (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), call Altdorfer the first modern landscape painter. A number of his painters contain no figures at all — Altdorfer also worked as an architect, and some depict lonely ruins at twilight.

Altdorfer cleverly uses lighting effects to bring out the figures from the background and give the scene a sense of mystery. The effect is a strange stillness that is at odds with the traditional dynamism and violence of depictions of this subject.

charging bull - detail

Fearless against the blowback

From Greg Fallis's website.

From Greg Fallis’s website.

Greg Fallis, on the website gregfallis.com, does a service in reminding us of the history of the statues of the Charging Bull and the Fearless Girl. I live on the West Coast, and the last time I saw the Bull in the Bowling Green of the Financial District in Manhattan, New York City, the Fearless Girl had not yet been installed.

But I cannot agree with the conclusion Fallis draws from that history. He reminds us that Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who produced the bull at his own expense, created it to represent “the strength and power of the American people.”

Charging Bull, 1989, by Arturo Di Modica. Bronze. Bowling Green, Manhattan. Photo from bryan…’s photostream.

The Girl, on the other hand, was commissioned by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. It was intended as corporate marketing. So that seems to be a mark against the Girl.

Additionally, Fallis notes that the Girl draws her strength from the Bull, so she in effect is parasitic on it. “A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art,” Fallis says, “to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art” (Di Modica installed the Bull without permission from the city).

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The Great Piece of Turf (detail), 1503, by Albrecht Dürer.Nuremberg, watercolor on paper. Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf

The Great Piece of Turf, 1503, by Albrecht Dürer. Nuremberg. watercolor on paper. Albertina Museum, Vienna.

The Great Piece of Turf, 1503, by Albrecht Dürer. Nuremberg. watercolor and white gouache on paper. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.

This small (15.75 x 12.25 in.) watercolor is called Das große Rasenstück in German, which is most often translated as The Great Piece of Turf. Some of its greatness lies in that fact that in one sense it is not great at all — it’s just a seemingly ordinary couple of square feet of weeds and grasses. According to Tom Lubbock in The Independent, the plants can be identified as “cock’s-foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow grass, daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, greater plantain, hound’s-tongue and yarrow.” Not focal plants for most gardeners.

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Nubble Lighthouse, York, Maine.

To The Lighthouse: Nubble Light House, Cape Neddick Light Station, York, Maine (and a few other lighthouses)

Nubble Lighthouse, York, Maine.

Nubble Light House, York, Maine.

Recently I visited Sohier Park in Cape Neddick, York, Maine (near Ogunquit). About 100 yards offshore on a small rocky island perches one of the prettiest lighthouses I have seen, called Nubble Light House. The lighthouse was built in 1879, and the original lighthouse and perhaps outbuildings are still standing (though no doubt much repaired and updated). The 41-foot-high lighthouse — built of cast iron lined with brick and equipped with a Fresnel lens — remains in use today.

No. 85000844 on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse is a New England icon: its image was included among the Voyager spacecraft materials so that any extraterrestials the ship encounters can gape at it, just as we do. The day before we visited we were hit by an April Fool’s Day storm that dumped ten inches of snow on us. But when we got to the lighthouse the sky was clear and blue.

Nubble Light House, York, Maine.

Nubble Light House, York, Maine.

The visit to Nubble made me recall a few other lighthouses I’ve visited, some of which I was able to dig up from my photo files. My favorites are two Northern California lighthouses, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse near Pescadero (the tallest on the U.S. Pacific coast), and the Point Cabrillo Light Station near Mendocino.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, CA.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, CA.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, CA.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, CA.

The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse near Mendocino (and the small community of Caspar) is one of the most complete remaining lighthouse complexes.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, Caspar, CA.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, Caspar, CA.

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Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a royal woman.

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a woman.

In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.

Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).

Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. The two pieces making up this belt hook are inscribed with characters reading “Forget me not.”

Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.

Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.

Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects:

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Mailbag: 10 Design Trends

Design trends graphic (detail).

Design trends graphic (detail).

I received an e-mail from Katie Smith of Creative Market calling my attention to their infographic on design trends of the past year. “f you feel this article is a good fit for your audience then please feel free to pass it along with your blog post,” she wrote. As it happens, I do think it is worth sharing. The ten trends are “Flat 2.0; bold, playful typography; whimsical illustrations; the new retro; motion; minimalist logotypes; geometric shapes; print-inspired (analogue printing influenced); abstract Swiss; movies and cartoons.” Has abstract Swiss been trendy for eighty years now?

I’m not a trendy designer myself, but still, it’s worth keeping up with what’s going on. The graphic itself is a good example of  a type of current information design (which I generally like). Note that the graphic is followed by discussion further down the page. Click through the portion of the graphic displayed above or click here for the original post.

Ginger Beer Label

ginger beer label

Since I’m taking a batch of my homemade ginger beer to an event in a few days I slapped up this little label for it. It goes on a recycled orange juice container.

The font is Bau Pro.

For odd-sized labels I use full-sheet Avery labels and trim them down with a paper cutter. (Mine are for my color laser printer, but they also make an ink-jet version.)

I can see I need to top this bottle up a bit!

 

 

Bonds and Fractures: Asian Art Museum Exhibition Sheds Light on the Rama Epic

Ravana takes the fields against Lakshmana and Hanuman, detail of a page from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahiubdin (Indian, active 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.60or. Front cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Ravana takes the fields against Lakshmana and Hanuman, detail of a page from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahiubdin (Indian, active 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.60or. Front cover of the exhibition catalogue.

This winter, projects and holidays conspired to prevent me from catching the Asian’s current exhibition, The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe until late in its run. Now there remains just a week left to see the show, and before I say anything else let me say that you should stop reading this and go catch it right now.

The Rama Epic is a major exhibition that was organized by the Asian under the direction of Forrest McGill, Wattis Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the museum, and it draws materials from a wide region. Included are 135 objects from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The objects, of the highest quality and carefully chosen to highlight the exhibition narrative, were drawn from institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asia Society, the British Library and British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, LACMA, the Met, the Guimet, MFA Boston, the Peabody Essex, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum Rietberg Zurich, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the V&A, and several others, in addition to the Asian’s own respected collections. This is an extraordinary gathering together of materials that must have been a formidable undertaking for the organizers.

The Rama epic, best known in the West through the Ramayana of Valmiki, is of course, along with the Mahabharata, one of the key sources of narrative in South and Southeast Asia, not only (as the exhibition illustrates) for Hindus but also for Buddhists, Muslims, and others of the region’s peoples. (McGill compares it to the King Arthur stories; comparison could also be made to the Homeric epics and tales of the Bible.) As a result, many variations of the stories exist. The exhibition conveys the diversity of the Rama stories, as expressed in a wide range of places and times, while also distilling them down to their underlying essence.

It does this by focusing on four key figures, presented as the Hero, the Heroine, the Ally, and the Foe. These are Rama, his wife Sita, the monkey warrior Hanuman, and the demon king Ravana. Through a succession of artworks arranged to highlight these four figures, the complexities and controversies of the epic emerge, while even visitors who are not much familiar with the stories gradually come to understand its essential structure.

Reduced to bare bones, the story is this: Rama, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, is born a prince of an Indian kingdom. His worthiness is evident and also proven by challenges, yet he is prevented from ascending to the kingship by palace intrigues. He meets and weds the faithful Sita. Always he is accompanied by his constant companion, his brother Lakshmana. Exiled from the city of his birth, Rama and his companions live for years in a forest wilderness. There a female demon attempts to seduce the brothers. Appalled by this prospect, Lakshmana hacks off her ears and nose, which must have done little to improve her presentability. She complains to her brother, the powerful demon Ravana, and things go downhill from there. Soon warfare engulfs everyone.

Through trickery, Ravana succeeds in kidnapping Sita, and Rama must lead an army to find and recover her. Chief among his warriors is the bold and powerful Hanuman, who succeeds in locating the captive and who distinguishes himself in the ensuing battles. Eventually Rama kills Ravana, Sita is freed, and Rama is crowned king. But false rumors circulate that Sita might not have been faithful to Rama during her captivity. To prove her fidelity, she enters and emerges unscathed from a bonfire. In many versions of the story this dubiously happy ending settles matters, but in others Sita’s trial by fire still does not satisfy some of the kingdom’s malicious gossips, and Rama, putting good governance over his own feelings for Sita, sends her packing. After many years in exile, she is returned, only to be asked once again to submit to the fiery proof. But by this time she has finally had enough. Calling on her mother, the goddess of the earth, as a witness, she is swallowed into a great opening in the ground—whose fault was that?—and she disappears forever. In this bittersweet version of the ending, Rama then abandons his earthly form and ascends to the heavens.

In many ways it is a story of bonds and fractures. Constancy and inconstancy are the, well, constant themes. Some works that highlight these motifs can give a sense of the content of the exhibition (though the diversity of works is far greater than I can show here).

The invisible Indrajit fires arrows at Rama and his allies; end panel from a box (detail), ca. 1500–1600. Sri Lanka. Ivory. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Friends of Indian Art and the Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund, 2004.16.

The invisible Indrajit fires arrows at Rama and his allies; end panel from a box (detail), ca. 1500–1600. Sri Lanka. Ivory. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Friends of Indian Art and the Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund, 2004.16.

Among the bonds is the constant friendship of Rama and his brother Lakshmana. Lakshmana never wavers in his support of Rama, and the two experience many adventures together. This sixteenth-century ivory relief from Sri Lanka depicts the brothers’ falling victim to arrows fired by Ravana’s faithful son Indrajit, who has become invisible.

 

Hanuman returns with medicinal plants, 1775–1780. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz, B40.

Hanuman returns with medicinal plants, 1775–1780. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz, B40.

Hanuman is equally constant. After the brothers are grievously injured by Indrajit, Hanuman brings healing herbs from the Himalayas to revive them. Unsure which herbs would work best, he carries back the entire mountaintop, as shown in this eighteenth-century painting from northern India.

The demon giant Kumbhakama battles Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears, ca. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state, former kingdom of Datia. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003. 3.

The demon giant Kumbhakama battles Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears, ca. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state, former kingdom of Datia. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003. 3.

Constancy also features on the demonic side of the conflict. Ravana’s giant brother, Kumbhakarna, is something of a comic figure, but a complex one. Despite disapproving of Ravana’s actions, he feels obligated by fraternal bonds to fight on Ravana’s behalf. Here, in a seventeenth-century Indian painting, he battles an army of monkeys and bears, allies of Rama.

 

Mourning for the death of Ravana, and preparations for his funeral, from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahibdin (Indian, active ca. 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.173r.

Mourning for the death of Ravana, and preparations for his funeral, from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahibdin (Indian, active ca. 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.173r.

Kumbhakarna’s decision to battle to the death for Ravana is contrasted with the path taken by another of his brothers, Vibhishana. Like Kumbhakarna, Vibhishana was outspoken in criticizing Ravana. Unlike him, he goes over to the enemy and fights alongside Rama. What does fidelity mean in this case? By being true to his beliefs is he untrue to his brothers? In the lower left of this seventeenth-century painting depicting mourning for the death of Ravana, Vibhishana— who has refused to carry out traditional funeral rites, arguing that Ravana was cruel and despotic—is upbraided by Rama, who says that Ravana was nonetheless heroic in battle.

 

Sita’s trial by fire, ca. 1940, by Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972) or workshop. Opaque watercolors on cardboard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mr. J. C. Irwin, IS.49-1979.

Sita’s trial by fire, ca. 1940, by Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972) or workshop. Opaque watercolors on cardboard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mr. J. C. Irwin, IS.49-1979.

Many more instances of fidelity and infidelity appear in the epic. A Structuralist critic could have a field day diagramming all the binary oppositions. But the core case is that of Rama and Sita. Sita remained faithful throughout her long captivity, despite Ravana’s pressures. Yet Rama appears to treat her as if she had been sullied, despite never believing this had happened. Many will feel that Sita—“an abused wife and yet a feminist heroine,” according to Sally J. Sutherland Goldman in the exhibition catalogue—has been treated unfairly. In this 1940 painting by the modernist Indian painter Jamini Roy (or his workshop), Sita sits enigmatically amid the flames during her trial by fire.

Sita, ca. 1893, by Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel, conté crayon, and charcoal on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.320.

Sita, ca. 1893, by Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel, conté crayon, and charcoal on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.320.

Equally enigmatic is a painting of Sita by Odilon Redon. Redon said of it that “a title is only justified when it is a little vague, and even aims confusedly at the equivocal.”

Moral dilemmas abound in the Rama stories, and people have debated them for centuries. I have only been able to touch on a few here. I strongly urge anyone who can make it to go see this show, now in its final week, before its marvelous artworks return to their lenders or to storage.

For those who can’t make it to the city this week, the exhibition catalogue (handsomely designed by Wilsted & Taylor) is organized along the same lines as the exhibition. It is a must-have for anyone with an interest in South or Southeast Asian art and culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs.

I think of this photo as having a bit of a Richard Misrach quality.

Photography at Tom’s Garden

Senicio talinoides at Tom's Garden

Senicio talinoides at Tom’s Garden.

If anyone is interested in my garden photography, have a look at Tom’s Garden. The current post is a May Day assessment, from which this image is drawn.

Typography at rightreading.com

This post will be sticky in the “typography” category. There it will head posts on type from blog.rightreading.com. My own thoughts on typography, beyond what is below, can be found at The Typehead Chronicles.

Photography at rightreading.com

This post will be sticky in the “photography” category. Most of my photography these days is either travel or garden/nature. There are a lot of the latter at Tom’s Garden: recommended! At one time I had a photo-specific blog on this site, and there was a lot of travel photography here and there. I will gradually make all of that accessible from this sticky post on the category page.

Exhibition Review: China at the Center, at the Asian Art Museum

In London in December 1598 a group of actors and other theatrical professionals, part of a company called the Chamberlain’s Men, armed themselves with “swords, daggers, bills, axes, and such like.” In the bitter cold they waited for nightfall in the northeastern suburb of Shoreditch, “a disreputable place, frequented by courtesans.” Their target was an abandoned entertainment complex called The Theatre, where they had performed for several years until being barred by their landlord over political and financial disputes. Now, under cover of night, they systematically disassembled the theater and transported its timbers to a warehouse by the Thames. Within months they would use them to build a new theater south of the river.

But what to call it? The group felt the need to rebrand. Competitors had sprung up all over town. The generic name “The Theatre” would no longer distinguish the company. Their creative team, which included the shareholder, playwright, and actor Will Shakespeare, set to work. The name they came up with was “The Globe.” It would be “a wide and universal theatre.”

What made the globe such a compelling brand at the turn of the sixteenth to seventeenth century? For one thing, it was during this period that the world became truly global in the sense that regular trade — of ideas as well as goods — connected all of the inhabited continents. Thanks to the new maritime traffic, adventurers, diplomats, traders, and missionaries spread throughout the world. Among them was a group of Jesuits who gained access to Ming China. The most famous of these was an Italian, Matteo Ricci, who arrived in Macau in 1583, established connections with Chinese literati, and lived in that country until his death in 1610 (when Shakespeare was working on The Tempest).

China had once explored the far reaches of the world in giant ships under the direction of the eunuch Zheng He, but the Chinese had concluded that there was little in distant parts that was up to their standards, and they had officially curtailed such oceanic expeditions. An illicit maritime commerce based in south China was winked at, but it extended mainly from Southeast Asia to Japan, leaving much of the world unmapped by the Chinese. So Ricci and his fellow Jesuits armed themselves with celestial and geographic knowledge derived from the new scientific developments and explorations of the Europeans.

The European astronomical refinements impressed the Chinese, whose emperor derived authority from the “mandate of heaven.” With the long-lived Ming dynasty showing clear signs of decay, it was worth scrutinizing the skies more carefully for augurs of change. Not only that, but the distant world was increasingly knocking on Chinese doors. The Portuguese had been first, but now the Spanish had become involved through their outpost in the Philippines. Even upstart nations like Shakespeare’s Britain were starting to dip their toes in distant waters. Who were these barbarians with their great ships?

Ricci found a keen audience for his geographic knowledge. In 1584—when Shakespeare was twenty and learning his trade—Ricci, with the help of Chinese colleagues, produced a large woodblock-printed Chinese-language map of the entire world. It was an extraordinary achievement that eventually came even to the attention of the dissolute and reclusive Ming monarch, the Wanli emperor. Ricci was called to the capital, where, in 1602—around the time Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cresida, and All’s Well That Ends Well—he created an even grander and substantially updated map. It incorporated Asian knowledge of the world obtained from Ricci’s Chinese colleagues as well as new geographical information that had arrived from Europe.

Ricci map of 1602

A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World, 1602, by Matteo Ricci (Italian, 1552–1610), with Li Zhizao (1565–1630), printed by Zhang Wentao (dates unknown). China; Beijing. Six-panel woodblock print; ink on paper. Owned by the James Ford Bell Trust, Held at the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

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The Asian at Fifty: First Impressions

AAM loggia

AAM loggia

In 1966 the Asian Art Museum opened as a branch of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. As a condition of the second of two major major gifts of artworks to the city of San Francisco from industrialist and Olympics head Avery Brundage (who can currently be seen portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the movie Race), the museum was separate administratively from the de Young, though that distinction was probably lost on most visitors. Brundage’s collection was extraordinary, and the museum’s holdings remain San Francisco’s most valuable asset—apart from its real estate, and we all know how that has gone.

In 2003 the museum moved to its current home in what was formerly the main branch of the SF public library, repurposed for the new use by Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. Now it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original opening to the public, and I attended a press preview for the opening of two special exhibitions, China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps and Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art. A third special exhibition, Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts, opened Feb. 26 and will continue until May 8. In the coming days I plan to review all three of these exhibitions.

So how does the museum look on the occasion of its 50th? I’m happy to report that the answer is: spectacular! There are a couple of walls devoted to museum history in the space between Osher and Hambrecht Galleries (which the museum calls the Vinson Nook) and along the corridor behind its gift shop (which it calls the Hamon Arcade). But the display is tastefully done and not excessive. My fear was that the anniversary displays would be excessively self-referential, as was sometimes the case for past museum celebrations. But someone at the museum must have realized that however interesting such material may be for staff, board, and donors (and those interested in city history), it is not as compelling to most visitors as are actual artworks.

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New York Public Library provides hi-res images for free use

"Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, , 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

It’s encouraging to see libraries and museums beginning to make public domain images freely available, increasingly providing high-resolution scans or photos for downloading. Historically, they have guarded images of objects in their collections as a private source of income. Count the New York Public Library among the honorable elite who have made their pd images available to be shared. The library has just put up more than 180,000 images in hi-res free for the downloading. Highlights of the collection include photographs from the Farm Security Administration and Works Progress Administration, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, Walt Whitman papers (1854–1892), and early film shorts.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. "Old Man Depression sent us out on the road ... You don't know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you 'hit' Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. “Old Man Depression sent us out on the road … You don’t know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you ‘hit’ Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

 

50 books designed

I realized recently that I’ve designed at least 50 books (those are the ones I can remember). No wonder I feel as tired as Madelaine Kahn in Blazing Saddles. I made a page documenting this dubious achievement. Click the image below to visit it.

50 books designed by tom christensen

 

River of Ink: the cover

river of ink cover

This is what I’m thinking of for the cover of my new book, a selection of my essays. We’ll see if my publisher likes it.

I’m happy again to also be the book’s designer/typesetter. The image is a photo I took of the Castel San Giogio, an early castle (ca. 1400) in Mantua, Italy. Mantua is built amid lakes rather like my old home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

For the cover I darkened the water, but not so much that it is just a solid color–it still retains reflections, although that is hard to see in this image.

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