Wayne Thiebaud and Jim Gaffigan

Wayne Thiebaud, "Three Donuts," 1994. Oil on canvas, 11 x 24 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm.)

Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Donuts,” 1994. Oil on canvas, 11 x 24 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm.)

I’ve been thinking about Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings today, mostly because I have eaten way too many chocolate doughnuts over the past few days. Thiebaud doesn’t have as many paintings of doughnuts as he does of cakes and other sweets, but he does have a few (such as the one shown above, or this one of doughnuts and cupcakes).

The thing that I love most about Thiebaud’s paintings of desserts is his handling of the paint itself. Thiebaud applies the paint thickly; it almost feels like he’s painting with frosting itself (see detail below). The desserts have a true sense of tactility, which I think makes them seem even more desirable as tasty treats! (I guess it’s a good thing that Cookie Monster didn’t see a Thiebaud painting in when he visited art museums in New York earlier this year, or he would have tried to eat it!)

Wayne Theibaud, detail "Folsom Street Fair Cake," Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy torbakhopper via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Wayne Theibaud, detail “Folsom Street Fair Cake,” Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy torbakhopper via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Thinking about Wayne Thiebaud has also reminded me of Jim Gaffigan’s standup comedy, which often is about his love of delicious-yet-unhealthy food. Gaffigan must not have been aware of Thiebaud’s art before he made his joke about artists and still life paintings. This is what Gaffigan says in his show Obsessed about fruit (a healthy type of food that he dislikes!):

“…we haven’t wanted [to eat] fruit for hundreds of years. That’s why there’s so many paintings in museums of just bowls of fruit. Because you could start painting a bowl of fruit, you could leave for a couple of days, come back, and no one would have touched the bowl of fruit. But if you’re painting a doughnut? You better finish it up in the first sitting! You can’t even take a bathroom break – ‘Hey, what happened to my doughnut?’ Your friends are [like], ‘Oh, some fat guy came in here! Anyway, I’m going to get some milk and take a nap.’ That’s why there’s no doughnut art. It’s sad, really. When’s the last time you saw a painting of a doughnut?” (Audio clip of Obsessed found HERE, starting at 2:34).

To be fair though, it’s good to acknowledge that Wayne Thiebaud paints his doughnuts and cakes “from his imagination and from long-ago memories of bakeries and diners.”1  So, maybe Thiebaud just likes to eat doughnuts and cakes too, and he doesn’t have the patience to study them! Thiebaud does, however, also paint from life: he paints human figures (such as his wife Betty Jean, who is shown on the left in Two Kneeling Figures), and also sketches California landscapes outdoors and then returns to his studio to paint.

Anyhow, do you know of other images of doughnuts, cakes or other treats in art, besides those by Thiebaud? I thought of a few:

1 Cathleen McGuigan, “Wayne Thiebaud Is Not a Pop Artist!” Smithsonian (Feburary 2011). Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/wayne-thiebaud-is-not-a-pop-artist-57060/?no-ist

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“A History of the World” Snippets

For the past few months, I have been listening to podcasts of A History of the World in 100 Objects while I exercise. The clips are engaging and interesting, and they provide some distraction for me while I run. I’ve learned and pondered a lot of things in the process, and I wanted to write down a few snippets of things that have stood out of me in the various episodes I have heard.

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic. British Museum.

The Standard of Ur: I first learned about the Standard of Ur when I was in high school, I think. But I’ve never thought much about the size of this object. Neil MacGregor describes this as “the size of a small briefcase” which looks “almost like a giant bar of Toblerone.”1

I’ve never realized that this famous object was so small! Since it has the nickname of a “standard,” I just assumed that it was a larger size. I also was interested to learn that the inlaid stone and shell come from various locations: Afghanistan (lapis lazuli), India (red marble), and shell (the Gulf).2 These various mediums indicate that the Sumerians had an extensive trade network.

If you are interested in learning more about the Standard of Ur and theories surrounding its original function, see HERE.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Bronze Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Head of Augustus: I enjoyed learning about this head because it reminded me of discussions that I hold with my students about how ancient art was/is mutilated and stolen in times of war. This statue is no different. It once was part of a complete statue that was on the border of modern Egypt and Sudan. However, an army from the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë invaded this area in 25 BC (led by “the fierce one-eyed queen Candace”), and this army took the statue back to Meroë.3 The head was buried beneath a temple that was dedicated to this particular Sudanese victory, which meant that every person walking up the stairs to the temple would insult the emperor by stepping on his head.4 Even today, sand of the African desert is visible on the sculpture.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. British Museum. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David VasesI begin listening to this episode without any prior knowledge of these vases, so I was surprised to learn that these were from China (I assumed when reading the episode title that the vases had some nude figure which depicted the biblical David, à la Michelangelo or Donatello.) Nope! These Chinese vases are named after their most famous owner, Sir Percival David.

The thing that is most interesting to me is that, since these vases are dated 13 May 1351, we know that this level of fine quality blue-and-white porcelain predates the Ming dynasty (the dynasty from 1358-1644, which is typically associated with fine blue and white porcelain). In fact, we also know that the blue and white tradition is not Chinese in origin, but Middle Eastern! Neil MacGregor explains how Chinese potters used Iranian blue pigment cobalt (which was known in China as huihui qing – “Muslim blue”).5 Interestingly, Chinese artists even used Iranian blue pigment for exports sent to the Middle East, to meet the Iranian demand for blue and white ware after the Mongol invasion destroyed pottery industries in the area.It’s interesting to me that Iranian blue traveled to China, only to travel back to its area of origin as export pottery decoration.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle and the Crown of Thorns: This chapel was not featured in the podcast specifically, but it was discussed at length in the episode for the Holy Thorn Reliquary. Sainte-Chapelle is a church that was built basically to be a reliquary, to house the Crown of Thorns. Surprisingly, the Crown of Thorns cost more than three times the amount paid to build Sainte-Chapelle!7  Today the Crown of Thorns is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; it was moved there by Napoleon in the 19th century.

I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the Crown of Thorns coming to Paris, and I wanted to learn more on my own. Louis IX dressed in a simple tunic (without royal robes) and walked through the streets barefoot while he carried the relic. The barefoot king is depicted in the Relics of the Passion window in Sainte-Chapelle. I also learned through my own research that the Crown of Thorns, while on its way to Paris, was housed in a cathedral in Sens overnight. This moment was honored in a window from Tours, which depicts Louis IX holding the thorns on a chalice.

The other thing I found interesting about the arrival of the Crown of Thorns is that this elevated the status of France among the Christian countries of Europe. “When the crown arrived, it was described as being on deposit with the king of France until the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to collect it and the kingdom of France would become the kingdom of heaven.”8

Are there any episodes/chapters from A Short History of the World in 100 Objects that you particularly enjoy? Please share!

1 Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), p. 72.

2 Ibid., 72-73.

3 Ibid., 225 

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 413. 

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 425. Sainte-Chapelle cost 40,000 livres to build. The Crown of Thorns was bought from the Venetians for 135,000 livres (400 kilograms of gold). MacGregor writes that The Crown of Thorns was “probably the most valuable thing in Europe at the time.”

8 Ibid., 427.

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Carpet Pages and Islamic Prayer Rugs

Carpet Page from the Book of Kells, folio 33r, c. 800. Painted illumination on vellum

Carpet Page from the Book of Kells, folio 33r, c. 800. Painted illumination on vellum. Image courtesy Wikipedia

This morning, in preparation for class, I was looking at a digital copy of the Book of Kells. I previously have written about how I think it is important to consider the exuberant decoration of the Chi-Rho-Iota page (known as the “Incarnation” page, folio 34r) in relation to the accompanying joyful text, which announces the birth of Christ. As I was looking at the digital copy of the book further, it struck me how this design is significant in relation to the context of the Book of Kells itself, since the Chi-Rho-Iota page is directly preceded by a carpet page (see above).

Carpet pages (sometimes called “cross-carpet pages”) are illuminated manuscripts which have a design that is generally in the shape of a rectangle (filling the outline of the page itself), with interlace and decorative geometric forms woven within the general rectangular form. Such pages appear in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Usually, there is hardly any text on these pages, or no text at all. The designs of these manuscripts usually are quite symmetrical and typically have a strong vertical axis (and sometimes horizontal axes as well, which often forms the shape of a cross). There are several possible origins for this type of carpet design, but I am drawn to the idea that these “carpets” are reminiscent of Islamic prayer rugs, for I think they may have also had a similar function: these carpets can serve as an aid to meditation in the sense that they alert the reader that the subsequent Gospel text is important, and the reader should mentally prepare before looking at the following pages within the book or codex.1

To see the relationship between carpet pages and other pages in the text, consider how the carpet page from the Book of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels precedes the incipit page (see image of these two pages HERE). This is a really complex and gorgeous carpet page (see below), which includes snake-like creatures whose mouths clamp down on their own writhing bodies (see this image detail).

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, folio 26v, early 8th century CE.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, folio 26v, early 8th century CE.

Here are some of my other favorite carpet pages:

Lindisfarne Gospels, Carpet Page for Book of John, folio 210v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne Gospels, Carpet Page for Book of John, folio 210v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne, Carpet Page, Book of Mark, folio 94v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne, Carpet Page, Book of Mark, folio 94v, early 8th century

Do you have any favorite carpet pages? If you know of any other connections between carpet pages and Islamic prayer rugs, please share! I did find an abstract for a lecture that explored the possibility of how illuminated Islamic manuscripts may have factored into the production of physical carpets themselves, although these historical connections are still unclear.

1 Other origins for carpet pages include contemporary metalwork, Coptic manuscripts, and Roman floor mosaics in post-Roman Britain. See Robert G. Calkins, Illuminated Manuscripts of the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1983), p. 53.

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The Bricks of the Ziggurat of Ur

The Ziggurat of Ur (photo taken 2005). Original structure built c. 2100 BCE. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Hardnfast.

The Ziggurat of Ur (photo taken 2005). Original structure built c. 2100 BCE. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Hardnfast.

Recently I learned a few interesting points about the mudbricks of the Ziggurat of Ur. This ziggurat was built around 2100 BCE by the king Ur-nammu and his son Shulgi (see a reconstruction drawing of the structure and a map of the original complex HERE). We know that this structure was built by Ur-nammu because mudbricks from this structure are stamped with Ur-nammu’s name.1 In fact, the first stage of the ziggurat construction was built using seven million mudbricks and 720,000 fired bricks.These mudbricks were created from clay and reeds. They would have been pressed into rectangular molds and left to dry in the sun, or they could have been fired to ensure the brick would better withstand moisture and wind.2  Such fired bricks weighed up to thirty-three pounds (which is impressive, but this weight pales in comparison to the Great Pyramid at Giza, where the stones weigh an average of 2.5 tons!).

Brick from the ziggurat of Ur, stamped with Ur-Nammu's name, c. 2100 BCE. Two dog's paw marks are seemingly-accidentally marked on one side. Image courtesy British Museum.

Brick from the ziggurat of Ur, stamped with Ur-Nammu’s name, c. 2100 BCE. Two dog’s paw marks are seemingly-accidentally marked on one side. Image courtesy British Museum.

The British Museum owns one such example of the stamped bricks from the Ziggurat of Ur (see above). The core of this structure is essentially solid, with only a small exception: in order to allow water to evaporate from the solid core, “weeper-holes” pierce the inward-sloping walls.3 These holes were lined with fired bricks, instead of the typical sun-dried bricks. Additionally, the outer layer of bricks for the ziggurat structure was comprised of these weather-resistant fired bricks, and these fired bricks were placed in waterproof bitumen. Additional measures were also taken to protect the entire structure from the elements: every few layers of bricks were covered with criss-crossed reeds and sandy soil, in order to prevent the ziggurat from drooping when the surrounding ground was flooded with silt from the Tigris and Euphrates.4

Detail of "weeper holes" at the Ziggurat of Ur. Other holes and damaged areas of the reconstructed ziggurat wall result, in part, from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base in 1920s (see source).

Detail of “weeper holes” at the Ziggurat of Ur. Other holes and damaged areas of the reconstructed ziggurat wall result, in part, from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base in 1920s (see HERE).

I knew that the Ziggurat of Ur was made of mudbrick, but I didn’t know how much detail went into the types of bricks that comprised the core and outer layer.5 With this new insight, I think I can better understand why the Ziggurat of Ur was called “Entemennigur,” which means, “House whose foundation creates terror.”

1 It is important to note that the second and third terraces were extensively restored by the Babylonian king Nabonidus (555-539 BC). Other rulers who preceded and followed Nabonidus, restored and/or altered this ziggurat as well (including Saddam Hussein). See Diana K. McDonald, 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World (Chantilly, VA: The teaching Company, 2013), p. 40.

2 Ibid., p. 40.

3 Ibid., p. 41.

4 Martin Isler, Sticks, Stones, and Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001) p. 31. Available online HERE.

5 It is also interesting to me that the king Ur-Nammu considered other details in his construction of other buildings. A temple at Uruk included foundation figures, which were copper “pegs” that represented the ruler as a temple builder, holding a basket of earth to make bricks. One such foundation figure is in the collection of the British Museum.

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The “Nude” Doric Column

Left: Doric column from Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy. Right: Metropolitan Kouros, c. 600 BCE

Left: Doric column from Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy. Right: Metropolitan Kouros, c. 600 BCE

This week I am teaching my ancient art students about Greek art. On Monday we explored how kouroi from the Archaic period consisted of nude male figures (see example above), whereas female korai were always clothed. It wasn’t until the Late Classical period that the female nude became a traditional subject in Western art (perhaps forever more, for better or worse!).

Then, today, we explored Vitruvius’ discussion of the Doric and Ionic orders as being “gendered” (with the Doric order compared to a male and the Ionic order compared to a female). I pointed out that Vitruvius compared the fluted shaft of the Ionic column to the folds of a matronal garment, and then read this translation of De Architectura: “Thus two orders were invented, one of a masculine character, without ornament, the other bearing a character which resembled the delicacy, ornament, and proportion of a female” (Vitruvius, 4:1:7).

At that point, I had a student ask if the Doric order was supposed to be perceived as nude, since the Ionic order was described as clothed. Given our discussion of nude kouroi and and clothed korai earlier this week, I thought this was an excellent question. And it actually was easy to discover after class that my student made a correct observation! The original Latin text by Vitruvius contains a slightly different description than the English translation I have been using, describing the Doric order as “unam virili sine ornatu nuda specie” (a male, naked and unadorned; 4.1.17).

I feel like the inclusion of “nuda specie” really changes the way that one thinks of the Doric order, and I wish that this detail was stressed more in English translations of Vitruvius. I did find this English translation which includes the naked reference, and I think I will use this translation from hereon out.

So, if Doric columns are nude, do these columns stand as references to of heroism or warriors, similar to the nude kouroi? Perhaps. I found a book called The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture by George L. Hersey which takes this idea of the “male” Doric columns further, arguing that the columns are representative of the Dorian invaders (nude warriors).1 He even finds that the entasis (slight swelling of the columns) perhaps suggestive of the straining of the human body.2 Although I’m not completely convinced that these Doric temples were supposed to be lined with the bodies of dynamic, straining warriors, it is an interesting and unique interpretation. What do others think?

Model of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (original perhaps begun c. 480 BE, although still under remodel in 2nd century BC and never completed).

Model of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (original perhaps begun c. 480 BE, although still under remodel in 2nd century BC and never completed).

Also, this topic has also gotten me to think about male and female architectural supports and ornaments, known respectively as atlantes (also called atlantids or telemons) and caryatids. It is interesting that the female caryatid figures are depicted as clothed (I am not aware of a single nude example), whereas the ancient male counterparts, the atlantes, are nude. Additionally, it appears that atlantes were used in a Doric context.3 The earliest example of atlantes figures appear at the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (shown in reconstruction above, and the remnants of one such atlantis can be seen HERE). Although these specific figures did not serve as columns but were placed between Doric columns, they appear to still have at least some load-bearing capacity and perhaps could have emphasized the perceived “nudity” of the Doric columns themselves.

1 George L. Hersey, The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 58. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid.

3 Dorothy King, “Vitruvius, Caryatids, and Telemones.” Available online HERE. An alternate version of this article appears in Dorothy King, “Figured supports: Vitruvius’ Caryatids and Atlantes,” Numismatica e Antichità Classiche, Quaderni Ticinesi, XXVII, 1998. Dorothy King writes that female caryatids could appear in a Doric context, although she may just be referring to a statue of Artemis on the Spartan agora. Typically, female caryatids were used in an Ionic context. Scholar Joseph Rykwert writes that apart from this Spartan example, there are no examples of Doric columns coupled with female figures. See Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998), p. 133. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.