Visual Literacy – 2

March 1st, 2015

When an unsympathetic viewer confronts an abstract painting, an easy jest for him to declare is: “I can’t tell whether it’s hanging upside down or right side up!”

Uncertainty of that kind rarely arises when the art being looked at comes from the realist school. There are enough cues in a figurative piece to set the image aright.

Last month, while looking through a catalog of paintings, drawings and prints up for auction at a local auction house, I found an exception.  It was a case of someone — most likely the cataloguer who handled the photos of the art and arranged them on the catalog page — literally turning the artist’s intention upside down. The cause of the snafu is beyond my knowing; it may well have been a simple mistake by someone otherwise familiar with our visual heritage. But whatever the cause, in both the printed catalog and auction house’s online presentation, an eighteenth-century pencil drawing of a male figure was shown this way:

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(Screenshot of online catalog, cropped)

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It’s a fine drawing. The artist, a French engraver named Bernard Picart (1673-1733), demonstrates himself to be a skilled draftsman. Picart well qualifies for his own Wikipedia page, here. He is renowned for the book illustrations he produced for editions of the Bible, and Ovid’s fables for which he depicted scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.

What interested me in the drawing is the clues it reveals about Picart’s working methods. Here, I thought, is evidence that Picart used a live model as the source for initial studies that would ultimately become his final engravings. This was an example of the preliminary drawings he likely relied on to generate insights and solutions when composing a final picture.

But before speculating further there was another matter to address. Picart’s drawing was arranged on the catalog page in a way that placed the figure in a head up, feet down position, To me this looked, well, mighty awkward. There was something not right about the configuration of the man’s limbs, something strange in the outbound spray of his hair. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t the artist establish what his model’s feet are resting upon? What’s prompting the inexplicable sense of weightlessness to his stance? Surely the artist did not mean for the man to look as if he were pinned to the ceiling, wriggling like Spiderman. I suspected others who looked at the catalog also were momentarily confounded, unable to make sense of this human figure, uncertain of the purpose he was meant to serve.

What is the figure’s raison d’être?

Ah! Might it look different if the figure were turned . . . upside down, head-over-heals, like this? –

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Now we understand intuitively what’s happening. The figure is meant to signify a man in free fall, falling through space, unmoored from his body’s natural protections against gravity. His implied trajectory is as dramatic and as horrible as one can imagine. His arms splayed out like helpless wings, he will come to a terrible end. That is what Picart wanted to capture.

The artist could not very well ask his live model to remain freely suspended, head pointed downward, from the ceiling of the artist’s studio. Cleverly, like a modern-day photographer who place a model on an evenly lit stage, to stand on and in front of a stark white, smoothly-papered, shadow-free backdrop, Picart discovered an expedient. He would place his model in a supine position, his torso on a low stand, with his feet pressed up against a wall. He may well have used white drapery to make disappear these supports. This was a pose his model could assume with minimal discomfort. It allowed for easy changes in positions, various shifts to the head, arms, torso and legs, as the artist might choose to visualize. It well served the artist’s goal of capturing the falling look he needed.

Needed for what?

To reenact a narrative of a man’s fall that his contemporary audience would immediately recognize as the Fall of Icarus.

Below is Picart’s engraving, The Fall of Icarus, for which I believe the auctioned drawing was a preliminary study. The engraving is one of the illustrations Picart contributed to an edition of the Metamorphosis of Ovid published in 1733.

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Note: The auction house correctly hung the framed drawing during the exhibition held during the week prior to the auction:

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Did the Tusken Raiders have pet dogs?

February 16th, 2015

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While looking through some old photos this morning, one snapshot from June, 2008, of my golden retriever Jesse, made me pause and reminisce. The location was the Calvert Cliffs formation on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. Jesse had climbed up into the debris of a fallen section of the cliff, and I snapped him when he worked his way around to this position:

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It looks like Jesse wanted to reenact a scene from Star Wars — the scene on the planet Tatooine when the Tusken Raiders (less formally referred to as Sand People) make their scary appearance:

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Jesse found a similar protective position, and he even managed to emit a low-voltage eerie glow from his otherwise dark eyes, just like the yellow-eyed Jawas below.

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But as for creating just as threatening a look as those two native species of Tatooine? Bah! Earth-bound Jesse totally fails it.

The Sorry State of Visual Literacy?

February 8th, 2015

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This small painting is among the items up for auction next month at a prominent West Coast auction house. The catalog description identifies the work as a “religious painting (18th/19th century)” depicting a “man with tail carrying child and globe with cross.”

Really? This is just some unknown guy? With a tail? Carrying some unknown child on his back? The scene is some unfathomable concoction by a quirky artist?

Make that, artists (plural).

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Cartoon (hand-made)

January 21st, 2015

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(Tip of the hat to JWE)

Signs in the Neighborhood

January 7th, 2015

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Yesterday’s drifting snow in Glover Park turned a cautionary sign into really bad advice:

Cleaned up, the sign reveals its original intent (click on image to enlarge):

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For additional information about these safety signs, go to http://drivelikeyourkidslivehere.com/.

Several blocks to the south, in Georgetown, someone turned their mini-dumster into a four-sided plea:

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Yard Sale – Honesty in Advertising

November 9th, 2014

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Yesterday in Glover Park:

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Blog Spam – A Look Behind the Curtain

November 9th, 2014

Despite the valiant defense of anti-spam filters, this blog, like most every blog, receives its fair share of blog spam.

Usually considered a petty annoyance, the phenomenon is an unlikely source of enchantment for some. Dan Piepenbring, for example, in a piece for Paris Review (“Postcards from Another Planet“), studies spam comments within the context of a literary tradition.

Right now I’m more intrigued with how spam is created.

A clue arrived the other day in an extraordinarily long comment on a book review I posted on this blog last year. The comment opened a window into the hidden mechanics of spam construction.

It was a thick clump of confusing text. On closer examination I saw segments within the run-on message that could be used as a template to build a semi-coherent comment if one were so inclined. A would-be commenter could first isolate a part of the material and then customize it by choosing among words found in bracketed portions of the text:

Wow, this { article / post / piece of writing / paragraph } is { nice / pleasant / good / fastidious }; my { sister / younger sister } is analyzing { such / these / these kinds of } things, { so / thus / therefore } I am going to { tell / inform / let know / convey } her.

I appreciate { this sort of / this type of / such / this kind of } clever work and { exposure / coverage / reporting }!  Keep up the { superb / terrific / very good / great / good / awesome / fantastic / excellent / amazing / wonderful } work.

Greetings from { Idaho / Carolina / Ohio / Colorado / Florida / Los Angeles / California }!  I’m { bored to tears / bored to death / bored } at work so I decided to { check out / browse } your { site / website / blog } on my iphone during lunch break. I { enjoy / really like / love } the { knowledge / info / information } you { present / provide } here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

But in this instance, it appears the { lazy / scatterbrained / apathetic / sloppy / just plain dumb } commenter said to hell with choosing, why not simply send out the { entire / raw / exhausting / un-customized } shebang?

The shebang can be found here.

{ Check it out / Let me know the reaction of your younger sister / Get back to work! }

Halloween 2014

November 1st, 2014

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Round about my neighborhood big spiders on walls and facades were very big this year.

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Some homeowners went all out to stage elaborate scenes of thrills and chills.

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Osage Orange Tree Drops Its Fruit

October 29th, 2014

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Along Parrott Ropewalk in Georgetown’s Montrose Park there is an old Osage Orange tree (maclura pomifera). Early this morning I stopped to spend a few minutes photographing its large yield of fruit.

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The Endless Summer of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

October 26th, 2014

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Well, this blew me away. A begetter named Adam Bertocci has seized a single generative poem — Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 — and fractured and refashioned it into a brilliant series of 22 poetic exercises. Reading these pieces is like listening to an eclectic jazz performer spin variations on a theme, or like viewing a roomful of works by a disciplined cubist painter.

Yet again, Shakespeare’s “this” gives life to thee.

The one piece of Bertocci’s I’d like someone to press into further adaptation — into song — is this ditty:

Rondelet

Like summer,
But more so, your temperate way,
Like summer.
You will not fade nor discolor,
In lines that your beauty convey
You shine like the fires of day,
Like summer.

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