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Welcome to the New “Alberti’s Window” Blog!

Matt Cartwright, "Malabar Bombax," 2009

Friends! Readers! Bloggers! Welcome to the new website and design for Alberti’s Window! My husband J designed and programmed this site for me as a Christmas present, but it has taken nine months to get things underway. I’m thrilled to have a more visually-appealing location to discuss things that are visually appealing.

I thought I’d share with you a quote that I read a few weeks ago, when visiting the sculpture garden of the Maryhill Museum of Art (a simply delightful “collection museum” that was listed in a post from earlier this summer). Artist Matt Cartwright wrote this for the text label of his sculpture, Malabar Bombax (shown above): “This flower of the Red Silk Cotton tree – with its blooming shape – is a colorful, luscious inspiration to me. . . And perhaps this sculpture can evoke the viewer’s inner insect as they buzz from sculpture to sculpture within the Maryhill Sculpture Garden.”

I love the comparison between an insect and someone visiting a sculpture garden (or even a museum, for that matter). Like Cartwright, I’m hoping that I can evoke your “inner insect” with this new visual emphasis at Alberti’s Window. Feel free to flit from post to post, enjoying the larger images and clean design. Please update your RSS feeds and links to this new website. And while you are at it, could you please do a little pollination and share this new website with others?

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Digital Homage to the Square

For those of you who like Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, you might be interested in seeing my husband J’s recent project, “Auto Albers.” You can read a little about the project by clicking on the “?” on the lower left side of the project’s webpage.

J writes, “I recommend opening it in a new window and leaving it up for a long period of time. It changes very slowly, but can change quite dramatically throughout the day. That’s what I do, anyway…”

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Underneath the Colosseum

I’ve always really liked the Colosseum (70-80 CE, shown on left) and its history: Vespasian! Nero the Loser! Gladiators! The bastardization of Greek architectural orders! But even apart from art history, I personally have a soft spot for the Colosseum because of my own experience in Rome: several years ago I got to see Paul McCartney play a (free) concert outside the arena. It was awesome to see the Colosseum “rocking out” in florescent lights, serving as a backdrop to Beatles music.

Since I am featuring a giveaway for two subscriptions to Smithsonian magazine this week, I thought it would be fitting to write a post inspired by a Smithsonian article. I immediately turned to an article about the Colosseum in a Smithsonian issue from earlier this year (“Secrets of the Colosseum” by Tom Mueller, January 2011). This article contains some interesting, lesser-known facts about the Colosseum. For example, did you know that during the Renaissance Pope Sixtus V tried to turn the Colosseum ruins into a wool factory? Luckily, that project was abandoned after Sixtus V died in 1590. Phew!

The bulk of the Smithsonian article focuses on the hypogeum, the area beneath the arena floor of the Colosseum (see below). This area provided a network of service rooms and tunnels for performers, athletes, animals, and equipment. Currently, there has been a lot of hype created about the hypogeum (ha ha!). This area and the third floor of the Colosseum were just recently opened to the public last fall, following a $1.4 million restoration project. From what I understand, the hypogeum will probably be open through October of this year.

I’ve always thought that the hypogeum was particularly interesting, especially since I once heard that the hypogeum has its own unique ecological niche. For centuries, plants have rooted among these underground ruins. These plants are located quite far beneath the regular ground level and probably experience a unique range of external temperatures, sunlight, and rainfall. With such unusual conditions, one can suspect why botanists have been interested in these plants for such a long time. “As early as 1643, naturalists began compiling detailed catalogs of the flora, listing 337 different species.”1 Multiple surveys have taken place since then; in 2003 it was recorded that the combined lists contain 683 species.

I especially liked how the Smithsonian article discussed how the hypogeum allowed Colosseum spectacles to maintain an element of surprise and suspense. For example, animals that were held in the hypogeum would enter the arena on a wooden ramp at the top of a lift. “Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air.”2 The hunter in the arena would never be sure of where the next animal(s) would appear.

I can’t help but think of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games books after reading more about the surprise tactics used in Colosseum events. Although I had made connections between the Hunger Games and the Colosseum before (in both instances contestants are supposed to fight to the death), I hadn’t considered more parallels. The arenas for the Hunger Games were designed to continually introduce new surprises to the contestants. I even recall at least one instance (I think it was in Catching Fire) in which Katniss is lifted into the arena in a glass cylinder, suggesting that she was held in an underground space similar to the hypogeum.

Anyhow, I wonder how much Collins researched the Colosseum while writing her books. Has anyone else read The Hunger Games series? Can you think of more parallels between the Colosseum and the Hunger Games? What are your favorite things about the Colosseum?

1 Tom Mueller, “Secrets of the Colosseum,” in Smithsonian 41, no. 9 (January 2011): 29. Article found online at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Secrets-of-the-Colosseum.html#ixzz1U87oTpui (accessed 4 August 2011).
2 Ibid., 34.
Image credits: Colosseum image by Diliff via Wikipedia. Hypogeum image by Briséis via Wikipedia.
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The Red Vineyard: SOLD!

I have plenty of things to do this afternoon, but I keep stopping to think about Van Gogh. Today I was discussing with my students about how Van Gogh is the quintessential example of the “artist-genius” construct (an artist who essentially is tortured by his art and creative mind). After all, Van Gogh cut off his own ear (unless Gauguin cut it off!), checked himself into a mental asylum (no doubt because of his uncontrollable passion for art, right???), and committed suicide.

Such aspects of Van Gogh’s life are popular to discuss in the world of art history (after all, we still are drawn to the “artist-genius” idea), but there has always been one other biographical detail which has puzzled me for a long time. In order for one to fully emphasize Van Gogh’s oppressed, tortured life, one of the following “facts” is oft repeated in the art world: “Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime” or “Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime.”

So, which is it? Did Van Gogh sell a painting or not? Or did he sell more than one painting? I’ve seen different answers in all types of locations (such as here and here), and I find it curious that there is so much ambiguity on this topic. Perhaps this confusion is partially a result of the internet, although I think that these these “facts” about Van Gogh have been independently propagated for much longer than the past two decades.

Luckily, the internet also has resources to allow for fact-checking. This afternoon I’ve been reading through an unabridged collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters online. These letters indicate that Van Gogh did sell (at least) one painting during this lifetime. The Red Vineyard (shown above, 1888) was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890 (just a few months before Van Gogh’s death). The Red Vineyard had been on display at the 1890 “Les XX” exhibition in Brussels. Van Gogh was well aware of his sale, since he wrote his mother about the sale in a letter from 20 February 1890. In a later letter the following month (dated 29 March 1890), Vincent’s brother Theo asked if he could send Vincent the money “from your picture from Brussels.”

A website dedicated to Anna Boch has put forward some suggestions as to why Boch bought The Red Vineyard. One suggestion is that Boch wanted to show some support for Van Gogh, since his art received a mixed review from artists and critics at “Les XX.” Or, as an Impressionist painter, it is possible that Boch simply was interested in Van Gogh’s style. Whatever the reason, the sale was made.

Do you know any more information regarding Van Gogh’s sold painting(s)? Any thoughts as to why this ambiguity has not been completely resolved?

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Valentine’s Day Kisses

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I thought people would like to look at Flavorwire’s article, “The 10 Best Art Kisses of All Time.” My two favorite pieces that are highlighted in the article are Rodin’s The Kiss (1889) and Brancusi’s The Kiss (1908 version found through link).

I would have also included Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (c. 1787-1793, see detail here) on the list. Even though technically the figures have just kissed or are about to kiss (depending on who you ask), it’s a much more beautiful sculpture than that horrid drawing by Picasso (listed as #9 in the article). Ugh.

Do you know of any other works of art which are appropriate for Valentine’s Day?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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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.