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June 2015

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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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.