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August 2009

Cezanne = Geometric Man

Camille Pissarro, Portrait of Cezanne, 1874

I just stumbled across this portrait of Cezanne. I’d never seen a portrait of the Cezanne before, but it makes me happy that Pissarro depicted his friend in a bulky, geometric fashion. Actually, it appears that Cezanne was a large-ish man (at least at some point in his life), as evidenced by this self-portrait (c. 1873-1876), this one (c. 1875).*

I like the thought that this bulkier, full-bearded man is reflected in the geometric, bulky art forms that he created. It’s almost like Cezanne’s geometric forms (like this Mont Saint-Victoire from 1900) are portraits of the artist himself. Ha! I find that kind of cute.

*It appears that Cezanne varied in his physical bulk and size – he appears smaller in this photograph (c. 1861, when Cezanne was about 22 years old) and his face appears quite thin in this self-portrait (c. 1898-1900, when the artist was about 60 years old).

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Found Objects and Conceptual Poetry

The idea of taking found objects and creating “ready-made” sculptures began with Marcel Duchamp in 1913 with his Bicycle Wheel. Duchamp’s most famous “ready-made” is his Fountain (1917, shown left). It’s no surprise that this piece (yep, that’s a urinal!) was rejected for exhibition.

I think found object art is really interesting. It’s fun to look at an everyday object as art – it gives the object new meaning and interpretation. I also like that found objects often can cause someone to look for aesthetic value and beauty in something that is ordinary. Granted, I don’t find a lot of aesthetic beauty in Duchamp’s Fountain, but I do like to think about how the sculptural form and physical presence of the urinal parallels sculptures which follow a more Classical tradition. (The white urinal even mimics the white marble of Roman/Renaissance statues! Ha!)

Artists still make pieces from “ready-mades” and found objects. I’ve already written about the contemporary artist Jean Shin, who uses old castaway objects for her artistic projects. Another interesting artist is Stuart Hayworth. The original prototype for this chandelier on the right (Millenium, 2004) was created out of party poppers that were used for the New Year’s celebration for the year 2000. You should look check out Hayworth’s other work on his website – he has a lot of interesting, fun, and beautiful stuff.

I like thinking about how other art forms have picked up on the idea of found objects. For example, conceptual poetry (a relatively new trend) takes something that has already been written and reuses the material to generate a new poem. This podcast by the Poetry Foundation discusses how conceptual poetry is similar to Duchamp’s idea of “ready-made” art, but poets are about a hundred years behind visual artists when it comes to this artistic trend (listen at 34:44).

For an example of a conceptual poem, listen to the one at about 23:17 on the podcast. This poem was written from words that were used for the September 11, 2001 edition of the New York Times (the edition that was written before the attacks took place that morning). It’s interesting to listen to words that are so mundane and ordinary, but also charged and poignant due to the impending disaster.

If you’re interested, you can read more about conceptual poetry here.

What do you think of art from found objects? Isn’t it interesting that poetry is following this same trend? I love to compare how different artistic ideas develop within various art forms. For example, musicians also latched onto the idea of taking existing sounds and turning them into music – John Cage is probably the quintessential example for this musical trend. (And check out this relatively recent article of a musician that’s turning street sounds into music!) Conceptual poetry is a century late in following what visual artists and musicians already have done, but I wonder if Hegel would still view conceptual poetry as part of the Geist of the 20th century. Or maybe not? Perhaps poetry is moving along with its own Geist? :)

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Heidenkind’s Art History Reading Challenge

I’m entering in a fun art history reading challenge on the blog Heidenkind’s Hideaway. Check it out and sign up too!

The first book I’m going to read fits into the General Studies category: The Challenge of the Avant Garde (edited by Paul Wood). After that, I think I’ll read one for the Popular History category: The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome by Jake Morrissey.
This is going to be fun! I’m excited. There are so many art history books that I have bought and need to read – this challenge may help me to plow through my stack!
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Parthenon Animated Clip

Earlier this summer I posted about how the Elgin Marbles controversy has been reignited with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum. It seems like the flames keep getting fanned as the summer waxes on. Currently, the Acropolis Museum is showing screenings of a short animated clip by Costa Gavros. This clip shows the history of the Parthenon, which culminates with Lord Elgin’s workers hacking metopes and pediment sculptures off of the facade. Excerpts of Lord Byron’s poem “The Curse of Minerva” is read by a narrator at the end of the clip (Byron wrote this satiric poem in 1811, when Lord Elgin was still removing marbles off of the Parthenon).

You can bet that this screening is a not-so-subtle hint that the Acropolis Museum wants their sculptures back. You can watch the clip here:

I don’t know if this clip has sparked much dialogue between the Greeks and Brits yet, but it has attracted attention and controversy. Recently, the Orthodox Church complained about the depictions of Christians destroying images in the film, and asked that 12 seconds of the film be removed. Later, it was decided that the film would remain unedited.

What do you think of the clip? I think fun to see a visual history of the Parthenon, even if the film agenda is biased.

It will be interesting to see if this Elgin Marbles debate ever ends. I don’t think that either side is backing down or willing to reach a consensus as to where the statues should remain. It’s a never-ending battle. It kind of reminds me of when Jack Sparrow and Barbossa are locked in an eternal sword fight at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Each side keeps on attacking and jabbing, but no progress is made towards ending the fight.

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Intro to Ancient Near East: Akkad

It’s been a while since I posted any introductory posts. I thought I’d briefly write about one of my favorite stelae from the ancient Near East period, the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (shown below, 2254-2218 BC).

The Akkadians were a group of people which took over Sumer in 2334 BC. The Akkadians spoke a Semitic language but used cuneiform (the Sumerian writing system) for their written documents. What I think is most fascinating about the Akkadians is their ideological shift in regards to divine rulers – halfway into the long reign of Naram-Sin (r. 2254-2218 BC), this king decided to heighten his political status by assuming divine status as well.1 There is visual evidence of this ideological shift on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, for the king is depicted wearing a horned headdress, a feature which was “formerly the exclusive prerogative of the gods.”2

This pink sandstone stele is my favorite piece of Akkadian art. It is one of the first pieces of art to depict an actual historial event; the stele commemorates Naram-Sin’s victory over the Lullubi people.

Hierarchy of scale is used in this composition, which means that the most important figure (in this case, Naram-Sin), is shown bigger than anyone else. Naram-Sin is walking up the mountainside, with his smaller soldiers marching behind him. If you look closely, you can see that Naram-Sin is treading on top of two fallen Lullubi soldiers.

The thing I like most about this stele are the stars depicted at the top. There are only two stars shown because the top of the stele is damaged, but it is thought that at least three favorable stars shown on the king. I read a footnote here which mentions that once there may have been seven stars on this stele.

I’ve had professors posit different ideas about these stars. Some think that the two depicted stars represent the dieties Shamash (the primary diety for the Akkadians) and Ishtar (the goddess of love, marriage, beauty and war). Therefore, the inclusion of these stars could indicate the gods’ favorable view of Naram-Sin. It also could be that Naram-Sin is walking up the mountainside in order to make a sacrifice to the gods, thanking them for his victory (which further propagandizes that Naram-Sin has divine support). This theme (the relationship between rulers and diety) is familiar in ancient art, which makes me think that this theory has some creedence. But if there were other stars depicted on this stele, which gods did they represent? How can we ensure that the attribution of gods to stars is not arbitrary?

I’ve had another professor who wondered if these stars could represent an actual cosmic event that took place during the battle or victory. I think this is a really interesting thought, though I don’t believe there is any extant evidence to support this idea. It’s kind of fun to think about, though. Since this stele was one of the first pieces of art to depict a historical event, it’s fun to think that historical accuracy extended to a depiction of what the stars looked like.

What do you think about these stars? What’s your favorite part about this stele?

1 Dominique Collon
, et al. “Mesopotamia.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T057228pg2, accessed 7 August 2009.

2 Ibid.

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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.