Tremors in Tuscany spark fears for David‘s safety

December 21st, 2014

The Chianti region of Tuscany has experienced more than 250 tremors in three days, the two strongest of which measured 3.8. and 4.1 on the Richter scale. They only visible harm they caused was some minor structural damage in a town 20 miles south of Florence, but authorities are concerned that this could presage a larger seismic event that would wreak havoc on the city’s greatest artistic icon: Michelangelo’s statue of David.

A study published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage last March found that David‘s ankles and the tree stump support behind the right leg were severely weakened by microfractures. Centrifuge tests on small gypsum models of the statue revealed that under stress, the statue could collapse forward, snapping at both ankles. Vibrations from nearby construction, maintenance in the building and certainly an earthquake would be sufficient to cause catastrophic damage to the monumental sculpture. Its own six-ton weight could be sufficient to bring David down.

Small cracks in the left ankle and stump were first noticed in 1851. They may have developed during the flood of 1844 or three years later when sculptor Clemente Papi made a full-size plaster cast of David, but the recent study suggests the original source of the problem was that the statue spent almost four centuries outside the Palazzo della Signoria leaning forward at an approximately five degree angle which put undue stress on the weakest parts of the structure. (The angled placement wasn’t deliberate; researchers believe it was likely the result of the ground settling unevenly underneath the plinth.) The tilt was only corrected when David was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873.

The microfractures have been monitored assiduously since 2001 and there doesn’t appear to have been any change in them, but even if the cracks aren’t getting gradually worse, they’re dangerous enough as it is. Add to that the inherent weakness of the marble — this particular block is riddled with microscopic holes that make it particularly susceptible to deterioration — and the giant-slayer is at constant risk. A few years ago there was discussion of insulating the statue from vibrations caused by footsteps of the thousands of tourists who walk by him every day.

The museum authorities declared that David would be safe even if the city was struck by an earthquake as strong as 5.5 magnitude, and there’s never been more than a 5.4 magnitude earthquake in Florence. That’s not much reassurance, however, because a) they can’t say for sure how strong the earthquake has to be to topple the statue, and b) just because a bigger one hasn’t hit yet doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

Thankfully this weekend’s tremors have lit a fire under key asses. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the state would fund the construction of an anti-seismic plinth to the tune of 200,000 euros ($245,000). An anti-seismic platform has already been designed to fit David‘s needs and it was discussed as a possible solution to the microfracture danger when the study made the news earlier this year, but it was all just talk at that point. The past three days of seismic activity have finally spurred action.

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Ode on the animation of a Grecian urn

December 20th, 2014

I’m a devoted fan of the Greek vase animations made by Panoply. Computer animator Steve K. Simons and Greek warfare expert Dr. Sonya Nevin work together to develop moving parts from the static images on Greek pottery, much of it in the extensive collection of the University of Reading’s Ure Museum. They collaborate with ancient music experts to create soundtracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the symposia depicted on the vases. It’s a full-spectrum historical immersion achieved through modern technology.

The project is focused on education and community outreach. Each animation provides additional resources for teachers to use the animations in class, and many of Panoply’s videos are storyboarded by local schoolchildren who get to enjoy an exceptional opportunity to learn about ancient art and history by studying a vase and then get to express their own creativity in the creation of the animated version of the scene. Sometimes they’re more serious treatments, sometimes lighthearted, but either way, the results are consistently wonderful. One of my favorites in the lighthearted category is this brilliant Dance Off storyboarded by the pupils of the Maiden Erlegh School and Kendrick School in Reading.

That 6th century B.C. Etruscan black figure oinochoe vase just GOT SERVED.

A more serious treatment is this animation of a combat sequence from 6th century B.C. lekanis vase made on the Greek island of Euboea.

The only thing I don’t like about it is that there isn’t more of it, which is why I was so excited to see Panoply’s latest effort, Hoplites! Greeks At War, a much longer and more detailed animation of the practice of ancient war from religious sacrifice to the thrust and parry of battle to the final victory.

I think it’s a masterpiece: the way the music and action are in perfect rhythm, how that blow creates the crack in the vase, integrating the condition of the vase into the scene, the addition of figures to form a little army instead of using the individual images alone. I feel like starting a petition demanding that all cheeseball reenactments of ancient history on television be replaced with Panoply animations.

Because I can’t resist them, I’m going to embed a couple of other favorites below, but you should go through all of the animations. They’re very short — Hoplites! is the exception length-wise, Dance Off the rule — so it won’t take you long to watch them.

Clash of the Dicers, created for a conference at the University College Dublin, features Achilles and Ajax playing a game during a lull in the Trojan War. It’s from a 6th century B.C. black figure amphora signed by potter Exekias now in the Vatican Museum. I love how the background glows like lava.

Medusa, storyboard by pupils from Addington School in Reading, was created pulling characters from three different vases: the gorgon is from a 6th century B.C. black figure kylix cup, her stoney victim from an Apulian 4th century B.C. red figure alabastron, and the warrior is from the Hoplites! lekanis.

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Victorian public urinal listed as historic building

December 19th, 2014

The Victorian-era public urinal atop Blackboy Hill in Bristol has been listed as Grade II historic structures of “more than special interest” by English Heritage.

A spokesman for the organisation said: “Historic elements of the public realm, including street furniture and public facilities, are particularly vulnerable to damage, alteration and removal and where they survive well, they will in some cases be given serious consideration for designation.

“In times of austerity, facilities and structures such as this set of urinals are under increasing threat, and where there are found to be deserving of protection English Heritage will recommend to the Secretary of State that they be added to the National Heritage List for England.”

He said the urinal was a “relatively rare surviving example of a once common type of building” and represented the “civic aspirations of the authorities in the Bristol suburbs in the late Victorian period”.

The ornate cast iron building was made by W MacFarlane & Co. Ltd’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow, by order of the Bristol Sanitary Committee in the 1880s. It is a rectangular full height structure with intricate perforated designs in Moorish style on the iron walls and a glass roof. Inside, chest-high white porcelain urinals are inset in the iron framing with curved modesty screens dividing each unit. The tile floor is a modern replacement, but the rest is original. The facility is still in use today and is a little the worse for wear. Perhaps its listing will inspire renovations.

Public lavatories were a nexus of Victorian obsessions — sanitation, technology, decoration as a marker of respectability, social reform, class conflict, gender roles, avoiding the various grossnesses of human biology. The modern era of public toilets was ushered in by sanitary engineer George Jennings who built “commodious refreshment rooms, with the accompaniments usually connected with them at large railway stations” in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The euphemistic description in the catalog was no deterrent to use. The first public flushing toilets were a hit, used 827,820 times by men and women during the five months of the Great Exhibition. The pay toilets raised £2,441 at a penny per usage, a fee that would remain standard for 150 years, inflation be damned. The idiom for urinating “spend a penny” is a legacy of Jennings’ innovation.

Spurred by the success of the Exhibition facilities and George Jennings’ ceaseless advocacy for public lavatories, the Society of Arts privately funded separate men and women’s toilets in 1852. They were as spectacular a failure as the ones in the Crystal Palace had been a success. Elegantly appointed and staffed by a supervisor and two attendants, these bathrooms were pricey at two pence per use or three pence for the basic plus a wash and brush (that’s right, you had to pay extra to wash your hands after using the public toilet). Perhaps deterred by the price or simply resistant to the very notion, only 58 men and 24 women used the lavatories over the course of a month. The facilities were promptly shut down.

The first public in both senses of the word — municipally funded and located on the public thoroughfare — lavatory was built outside the Royal Exchange in 1855. It was for men only and facilities would remain exclusively Gents for nearly 40 years. There was immense resistance from both men and women to the notion of public conveniences for the fairer sex. For some people, the notion of women peeing or pooping in close confines with other people of all walks of life was shockingly immodest, by its very design putting respectable middle and upper class women in the position of exposing their bodies and bodily functions in public much like prostitutes. The mixing of classes was seen as a danger in and of itself, the lady contaminated by rubbing shoulders with the flower girl.

The Ladies Sanitary Association began campaigning for public women’s facilities in 1878, demanding there be public restrooms (with one free water closet in every facility for poor women) to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of working women navigating the city. Eleven years later, the first municipal women’s facility opened in Piccadilly Circus.

The controversy was by no means over, however. In London’s civil parish of St Pancras, the first public latrines with accommodations for women were built on Kentish Town Road and St Pancras Road in the 1890s, but when the Vestry (the parish government) debated installing a women’s only facility at the intersection of Park Street and Camden High Street, it took five years, from 1900 to 1905, to get over all the snickering and dissembling from the governing body and protests from the residents and businesspeople. We have no less of a witness to this fracas than playwright George Bernard Shaw who was a Vestryman at St Pancras from 1897 to 1903.

In the March 1909 issue The Englishwoman, a journal advocating the extension of the franchise to women, Shaw published The Unmentionable Case for Woman’s Suffrage, an essay arguing that women in government were necessary to keep grown men from devolving into junior high nitwits whenever issues pertaining to women’s sanitation, public accommodations, etc. were discussed. He also revealed the sabotage and Catch 22s that kept the bathrooms from being built for five years.

For instance, the bus companies protested that the facility would be a dangerous traffic obstacle, even though there was a men’s room literally in the middle of the intersection across the street from the proposed ladies’ room. They put up a wooden model at the proposed location and indeed it was ploughed into no less than 45 times. Shaw pointed out in the essay that this statistic was not exactly bullet-proof.

[The wooden model] brought about all the power of the vestryman over the petty commerce and petty traffic of his district. In one day, every omnibus on the Camden Town route, every tradesman’s cart owned within a radius of two miles, and most of the rest of the passing vehicles, including private carriages driven to the spot on purpose, crashed into that obstruction with just violence enough to produce an accident without damage. The drivers who began the game were either tipped or under direct orders; but the joke soon caught on, and was kept up for fun by all and sundry.

The one Vestrywoman, Mrs. Miall-Smith, tried to get her colleagues to take the issue seriously because the thousands of women flocking to Camden Town to work in its factories needed to pee every once in a while, but with the class-mixing paranoia that accompanied the public toilet issue, her argument wasn’t likely to persuade the opposition.

Shaw noted that there was one highly relevant woman staff member who should have weighed in on the issue: a female sanitation inspector hired to examine the sanitary accommodations for women factory workers. She had an enormous task of inspecting work sites to see if they even had any facilities for women at all (many of them did not) and checking the ones that did have women’s lavatories multiple times a week for cleanliness. Shaw’s comment on her is a fascinating window into the complexities of communication across class and gender lines in Victorian Britain.

The exclusion of women from the Borough Council left the inspectress in a difficult position. The barrier of the unmentionable arose between her and members of the Health Committee. It was all the higher because the inspectress was generally an educated woman of university rank, not at all conversant with the sort of local tradesman who regards the subject of sanitary accommodation as one to which no lady should allude in the presence of a gentleman.

Finally in December of 1905, the debate ended. After more prodding from Mrs. Miall-Smith and a report from the Highways, Sewers and Public Works Committee, the borough agreed to build the Park Street women’s lavatory.

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Freer, Sackler to release entire collections online

December 18th, 2014

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have completed a digitization project whose scope is unprecedented in the United States. Come January 1st, 2015, their entire collections, more than 40,000 works of Asian and American art, will be released online. Most of these works have never been on display so they will be seen by the public for the first time as high resolution images.

In the initial release, each work will be represented by one or more stunningly detailed images at the highest possible resolution, with complex items such as albums and manuscripts showing the most important pages. In addition, some of the most popular images will also be available for download as free computer, smartphone and social media backgrounds. Future iterations plan to offer additional functionality like sharing, curation and community-based research.

“The depth of the data we’re releasing illuminates each object’s unique history, from its original creator to how it arrived at the Smithsonian,” said Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “Now, a new generation can not only appreciate these works on their own terms, but remix this content in ways we have yet to imagine.”

The museum’s masterpieces range in time from the Neolithic to the present day, featuring especially fine groupings of Chinese jades and bronzes, Islamic art, Chinese paintings and masterworks from ancient Persia. Currently, the collection boasts 1,806 American art objects, 1,176 ancient Egyptian objects, 2,076 ancient Near Eastern objects, 10,424 Chinese objects, 2,683 Islamic objects, 1,213 South and Southeast Asian objects and smaller groupings of Korean, Armenian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman works. In addition, the Freer Study Collection — more than 10,000 objects used by scholars around the world for scientific research and reference — will be viewable for the first time.

To enable the widest possible usage, fully 90% of the images will be free of any copyright restrictions for noncommercial use. The museums hope this will engender wider study of Asian art as well as new artworks inspired by the pieces in their galleries and archives.

Very few museums in the US have digitized their entire collections, and none of them are museums specializing in Asian art. The Freer and Sackler are also the first of the Smithsonian museums to have complete online collections. It’s not surprising that they would be pioneers in this area. The Freer and Sackler are the only museums to have been in on the ground floor of both the Google Art Project digitization initiative and the Google Cultural Institute. Google did the heavy lifting on those, though. The Smithsonian staff spent nearly 6,000 work hours this year photographing and digitizing the Freer/Sackler collections.

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Paul Revere time capsule retrieved in Boston

December 17th, 2014

A time capsule buried in cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams in 1795 was recovered last Thursday. There’s been a longstanding water leak problem affecting the corner where the time capsule was sealed in plaster, so workers removed the cornerstone and called in conservators from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to dig out the box. They propped it up on blocks so conservator Pamela Hatchfield could carefully chisel out the time capsule from the underside of the cornerstone. Lying on her back in the snow and wind (she didn’t want to flip the cornerstone because it might damage the artifacts), she chipped away at the plaster from 10:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. Finally she dislodged the box and it was taken to the Museum of Fine Arts under State Police escort.

Historical records indicate the time capsule was first installed in the cornerstone when construction on the Statehouse began. Silversmith, printmaker and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, William Scollay, a militia Colonel and the future great-uncle of author Herman Melville, and Samuel Adams, maltster (the family business was the production of malt used in brewing, not brewing per se) and fourth governor of Massachusetts, placed the time capsule. The original container was made of cowhide and is thought to have contained some 17th century coins, newspapers, the seal of the Commonwealth, a page from the Massachusetts Colony Records and an engraved silver plate, possibly the work of Revere himself.

It was rediscovered in 1855 during work on the building’s foundations. In classic 19th century style, they thought it was an awesome call to do some light cleaning before replacing the time capsule. The coins were dipped in acid and then the artifacts were put in a new container, a copper box slightly smaller than a cigar box, which was plastered onto the underside of the cornerstone. Officials threw some contemporary coins in the plaster for luck (five of them fell onto Pamela Hatchfield’s face during her long day of chiseling) and added a few things from their own time — more coins, newspapers, documents — to the box. It was a humid day in 1855, so between the acid cleaning, the moisture in the air during the transfer and the 30-year water leak from which it was rescued last week, conservators aren’t sure what condition the artifacts are in.

“Hopefully there will be no damage and we will be able to observe the artifacts that trace us back to the history not only just of this building, but of our Commonwealth and our country,” said Secretary of State William Galvin, who was on hand for the capsule’s first appearance in more than 150 years.

The time capsule was sent to the Museum of Fine Arts to be X-rayed. That will give conservators an idea of what’s inside and hopefully what condition the artifacts are in before they open the box. The contents will be examined and any necessary interventions done; they will be on public display for a short time. The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office has not determined whether they too will chip in something to record to the march of time before the capsule is returned to the cornerstone next year.

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Lost 1927 Disney short found in Norway

December 16th, 2014

Okay I’m just going to say it: the National Library of Norway is the POMPEII OF FILM. And thus I too succumb to the irresistible urge to call Pompeii on a discovery that is nothing like Pompeii except insofar as something thought to have been destroyed, possibly in an apocalyptic firestorm, was actually found to have survived. Earlier this year the library made the news for its discovery of the only known copy of the 1927 Chinese silent epic Pan Si Dong (The Cave of the Silken Web). Now they’ve identified another silent treasure: Empty Socks, a 1927 Disney short starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, that was thought lost except for a 25-second clip in the care of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The short was discovered in 2008 during a review of the National Library’s archive of nitrate films. The two reels were not clearly labelled so archivists didn’t know which film it was. The reels had once belonged to Norwegian collector Tor Eide who gave them to the Norwegian Film Institute. The NFI gave its collection of nitrate films to the National Library in 2007, and ever since then archivists have been going through the nitrate films to identify, restore, copy and digitize them.

This is a dangerous vocation. The nitrate film archives are kept in a custom-built climate-and-moisture controlled secure bunker near rock caves in the subarctic town of Mo i Rana. The high security bunker in a remote, cold location is a necessary precaution because the nitrocellulose compound used to make most motion pictures from the late 1880s through 1951 is insanely flammable. A little warmth or pressure and it explodes with more force than gunpowder. It doesn’t even need oxygen to burn because it produces its own oxygen during combustion. It also burns under water. The powder it biodegrades into spontaneously ignites even harder than the intact film. Handling nitrate films is therefore a highly regulated process with extensive security measures to protect the people and facilities from deadly consequences. The Mo i Rana bunker is partitioned into cells with fireproof walls to ensure that if there is a fire, it will be limited in scope. Every time a nitrate movie is taken out of the warehouse for study, it has to be left to temper for at least a day so the sudden increase in temperature won’t set it off.

Library film archivists Kvale Sørenssen and Tone Føreland didn’t recognize the story at first glance, but they wrote a detailed summary of the action. Føreland noted in the description that he thought it might be a Felix the Cat picture because one of the characters resembled Otto Messmer’s iconic feline. In March of this year, comic writer, illustrator, animation historian and former Disney archivist David Gerstein contacted the National Library after coming across some documents that suggested there could be lost Disney films in the library’s archives. He had already had success in Norway, discovering the 1928 Oswald the Lucy Rabbit short Tall Timber in the archives of the Norwegian Film Institute in 2007. The library sent him a list of film titles, but it was Føreland’s description of the untitled possible Felix the Cat short that caught his eye. Gerstein recognized the action as the plot of Empty Socks.

The first Christmas movie ever made by Disney, Empty Socks features Oswald the Lucky Rabbit playing Santa to some orphans, but his good intentions can’t save him from youthful rapscallionry. The little terrors set fire to a chair and the fire spreads through the home. When Oswald tries to douse the flames with a hose connected to the fire hydrant, the orphans connect the hose to a fuel tank instead and the orphanage blows up. The National Library’s film is missing between 30 seconds and a minute in the middle of the short (the sequence when Oswald hands out the presents ending up when the kids light the chair on fire) for a total running time of five minutes and 30 seconds.

On December 17th, the National Library in Oslo will do a viewing of the restored short and Tall Timber. Tall Timber wasn’t lost, but it is very rare, and it’s notable for being the last surviving Oswald picture directed by Walt Disney. Film archivist Kjetil Kvale Sørenssen and animated film historian Gunnar Strøm will introduce the shorts which will be shown with live piano accompaniment as is proper for the live silent movie viewing experience. The event is already fully booked.

No word on a wider release of the film. The National Library sent a digital copy of the restored film to the Walt Disney Company, The original nitrate will stay safe in National Library’s subarctic bunker.

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Racton Man: warrior chief, early bronze adopter

December 15th, 2014

The year was 1989. Milli Vanilli had three number one singles and a metal detectorist discovered a bronze dagger blade and a few rivets on Racton Park Farm, near Westbourne, outside Chichester, West Sussex. A subsequent excavation of the find site unearthed the complete skeleton of an adult and three full bronze rivets that had once studded the dagger’s organic hilt, now long since decayed. He had been buried in a crouched position holding the handsome dagger in his right hand. Although there was no evidence of a burial mound, the value of the artifact and the careful positioning of the body suggested this was a high status individual.

The style of the dagger placed it in the transitional period between the Copper Age and the Early Bronze Age, about 2,200 – 2,100 B.C., making it one of the earliest bronze artifacts ever found in Britain and one of only seven studded rivet daggers known (three others were found in Britain, three in Ireland). Even though the discovery was clearly important, there was no money to research the remains in further detail, so the bones and artifacts were put in storage in Chichester. James Kenny, today the Chichester District Council’s archaeologist, was then part of the original excavation team. He published the find in an annual report that he and his team printed and stapled by hand. This was not a periodical of wide circulation, to put it mildly, so the word never got out and the find sank into obscurity.

Kenny never forgot about the dagger burial. Two years ago he and Stuart Needham, an expert in Bronze Age metallurgy, were examining a field in Sussex where a small hoard had been found when Kenny mentioned the riveted dagger he had excavated 23 years earlier. Kenny told his colleague it was still the most exciting find of his career and Needham was instantly intrigued. There are so few dagger burials on the record he thought he knew all of them, but Racton Man hadn’t made any of the journals so the discovery had fallen through the cracks in the scholarship.

Kenny and Needham looked up the finds in the Novium Museum‘s archaeological stores and decided to seek out new funding to do a proper study. Their aim was to secure enough money to radiocarbon date the bones, do a stable isotope analysis of a tooth to discover where he grew up and a full osteological examination seeking evidence of illness or injury. The dagger would be analyzed to determine the metal content. They were able to get a £1,980 grant from the South Down National Park Authority’s Sustainable Communities Fund, a shocking pittance that was all they needed to get started. The rest of the funds were provided by the Chichester District Council.

The first step was cleaning the bones. They had been put in storage directly after the excavation, so the osteological specialist wasn’t able to see much through the dirt. Properly cleaned, the bones were analyzed by experts from England, Wales and Scotland. They were able to confirm that Racton Man was, in fact, a man (the length of his bones suggested he was male, but it wasn’t certain until the study), and one who went down fighting.

Isotope analysis undertaken on one of the Racton Man’s teeth by experts from Durham University shows that he could have been brought up in southern Britain – possibly somewhere to the west of Sussex. Radiocarbon dating of the remains was undertaken by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow. The result suggests that he died sometime in the period 2300BC – 2150BC.

Analysis of his bones by the London Institute of Archaeology suggests that he was 6ft tall and that he displays signs of spinal degeneration, which is thought to be age related. They also found that he suffered from a chronic sinus infection, as well as an abscess and tooth decay. Evidence has also been found of a peri-mortem cut – at or near the time of death – to the right upper arm bone, close to the elbow. There is no sign that this had healed. This is consistent with the arm being raised, elbow bent above the head, to protect it from a blow or strike from a weapon. These indications of actual fighting suggest that Racton Man’s dagger was not just for display. His social position may have depended on him demonstrating his prowess in combat.

Although less certain, there is also evidence of a similar blow having struck the lower part of the right shoulder, under the armpit. A sharp force blow to this area of the body would have been consistent with a double strike – one to the head, blocked by the raised right arm, and a second deep into the armpit, presumably to sever the major blood vessels in this area.

The dagger was not solely for ceremonial use. It had been repeatedly sharpened. The radiocarbon results of the burial make the dagger the earliest absolute dated bronze artifact ever discovered in Britain. This was the very dawn of alloy metallurgy so the dagger would have been an incredibly rare and expensive object, literally one of the first in the country.

You can see Racton Man and his dagger at the Novium Museum, on display in the same crouched position in which he was buried.

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Vast archive of kimono stencils found in Dresden museum

December 14th, 2014

The Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Dresden has rediscovered an unparalleled archive of Japanese kimono stencils in its storage depot. More than 15,000 katagami stencils, elaborately carved paper stencils used to print patterns on kimono fabric, had slumbered uninterrupted by curatorial interest in 92 neatly stacked and numbered cases for 125 years. This is the largest collection of katagami in the world. The museum is making up for lost time now and has put 140 of the stencils on display along with historic kimonos in the Elbe Wing of the Japanisches Palais.

From the wealth of motifs in the Kunstgewerbemuseum’s collection, those depicting aspects of rain, which has a particularly significant cultural and spiritual role in a country exposed to monsoon winds and dependent on rice cultivation, have been specially chosen. The uniformity of tiny falling raindrops also seems to be reflected in the aesthetic logic of the repetitive structural designs of the printed pattern repeats. The Designs became more and more refined as the fabrics for which they were created were increasingly being produced for use by the samurai nobility for prestige and ceremonial purposes.

When the first katagami prints arrived in Europe in the 19th century, the highly sophisticated art of Japanese pattern design had a powerful influence on ornament in western fine arts, craftworks, and on the emerging discipline of industrial design.

The Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City has one of the biggest collections of katagami in the United States with almost 400 examples. You can browse a selection of them in the museum’s collection database. You can see how the esthetic inspired western textile prints beyond the deliberate references of say, Art Nouveau’s Japonisme trend (compare this flying bat katagami in the Cooper-Hewitt collection to the Verneuil bats and poppies wallpaper in this post, for example). This water pattern could easily be a mod print from the 60s.

It’s an ancient art, at least 1,000 years old. Katagami are made by layering three sheets of washi, paper handmade from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, and pasting them together with a persimmon juice lacquer. The final product is a flexible but strong paper browned by the tannins in the juice. Then the design is cut out of the paper using tools specific to the art. There are four cutting skills — Hiki-bori (long stripes cut towards the artist), Dogu-bori, (figurative carving using a number of cutting tools), Kiri-bori (circular holes) and Tsuki-bori (shaped punches) — that each artisan must master. The process is painstaking and requires intense focus of mind and hand.

Once cut, the stencil is backed with a delicate interlacing net, the oldest of which were made from human hair strands but they were eventually replaced by stronger and more stable silk fibers. It can then be used in the katazome technique of resist-dyeing which entails spreading rice paste over the stencil onto the fabric. That’s repeated over and over again, each placement of the stencil carefully aligned to get an even print pattern throughout the textile. When the fabric is dyed, the areas with rice paste will not change color. Traditionally one katagami is used for one kimono, although that doesn’t mean each pattern is one of a kind since it’s possible for artisans to cut several katagami at the same time by stacking the prepared sheets.

Also known as Ise-Katagami because for centuries the Ise Province (modern-day Mie Prefecture) was the center of production. Artisans would create stencils that were used all over the country. The art, expensive, time-consuming and deeply connected to traditional Japanese clothing, declined after World War II. There are few masters still working today, most of them in the town of Suzuka where you can find the Ise Katagami Stencil Museum in an Edo Period historical landmark home. Perhaps the success of this great Gucci bag with the company’s trademark double-G logo applied using katagami and lacquer on deer leather is a harbinger of new life for the art form.

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Newly shiny Bedale Hoard at Yorkshire Museum

December 13th, 2014

The Bedale Hoard, a trove of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon gold discovered by metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, in May of 2012, is now on display at the Yorkshire Museum after months of conservation. It dates to late 9th or early 10th century and contains almost 40 pieces: 29 silver ingots, four silver collars including a unique large one made of four twisted ropes joined at the ends, silver neck rings, a silver Permian (from the Russian Perm region) ring, a flat silver arm ring made in Viking Ireland decorated with a Hiberno-Scandinavian design, half a bossed pennanular silver brooch, and an Anglo-Saxon iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques decorated in animal motifs of the Trewhiddle style plus four oval ring mounts and six gold rivets from the same sword.

The hoard was declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest, and British Museum experts valued it at £51,636. In January of this year the Yorkshire Museum launched a fundraiser so they could pay the valuation price and secure the hoard. Several of the pieces are unique anywhere in the Viking world, and little is known about Viking life in the Bedale area so the museum was keen to acquire it for display and study in the county where it was found. The Art Fund and the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund chipped in £11,000 each. Smaller grants from other organizations and donations from the public raised the rest. In June, the Yorkshire Museum became the proud custodian of the Bedale Hoard.

A few pieces — the four-strand twisted neck collar, the flat silver arm ring, some of the ingots — were put on display at the museum during the campaign to inspire donations. Since the successful completion of the campaign, the York Archaeological Trust has been cleaning and conserving the hoard, making it ready for permanent display. Conservation has revealed tiny cuts in the silver that were made before the hoard was buried to test the purity of the silver. Several of the newly cleaned ingots were found to have a cross engraved on them, linking them to Christian owners at some point in their early history.

Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at York Museums Trust, said: “It is only now that the hoard has been conserved that we can see its real beauty and the incredible craftsmanship involved in creating some of the artefacts. The Anglo Saxon sword pommel is probably the stand out piece. This is something that has been plundered by the Vikings and the conservation has meant we can now see the fantastic and delicate gold leaf patterns much more clearly and in some cases for the first time,” she said. [...]

Conservation work has revealed the gold leaf work, which would have been done by highly skilled craftsmen, on the sword pommel for the first time.

A museum spokesman said: “The Anglo Saxon gold sword pommel, its guard and the gold rings from the handle were all removed from the weapon at some point before burial. Samples taken from the guard reveal both textile and wood fragments, suggesting the sword may have been wrapped in cloth and the hoard was buried in a wooden box.”

As of Saturday, the Bedale Hoard is on display in the Yorkshire Museum’s Medieval Gallery, and boy does it look great. It makes for spectacular before and after pictures.

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Rijksmuseum acquires Adriaen de Vries bronze

December 12th, 2014

I love it when a museum wins an auction bidding war. The institution in question is the Rijksmuseum which has just bought Bacchic Figure Supporting the Globe, a bronze statue by Adriaen de Vries, for $27,885,000 including buyer’s premium at The Exceptional Sale in Christie’s New York saleroom. Three phone bidders engaged in a four-minute battle for the Mannerist masterpiece and the Rijksmuseum came out victorious thanks to generous funding from private and public donors.

The price sets a new record for de Vries, eclipsing the previous record that was set in 1989 when The Dancing Fawn sold for £6.8 million ($10,687,560). That was the last time a major work by the artist went up for auction, so if the Rijksmuseum hadn’t committed to this purchase, who knows when the next opportunity would present itself to acquire a work by one of the greatest Dutch sculptors for the Netherlands Collection. The museum owns a small bronze relief Bacchus Finding Ariadne on Naxos (c. 1611) by de Vries, and it has a larger sculpture, Triton Blowing a Conch Shell (c. 1615 – c. 1618), on loan from the National Museum in Stockholm. Bacchic Figure Supporting the Globe, which the museum is calling simply Atlas, is the first major piece by de Vries in a public Dutch collection.

It’s a particularly fine specimen as well.

Dated 1626 and probably the last autograph work by De Vries the bronze represents the mythological figure of Atlas, a nude man supporting the globe. It displays the virtuoso and highly individual modelling style for which the sculptor was celebrated during his lifetime. This exceptionally sketchy, free and tactile style reached its apogee in the final years of his life and shows him as a true artistic innovator, centuries ahead of his time.

De Vries was born in The Hague around 1555 where he trained as a goldsmith before moving to Florence and working in the studio of Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, the Medici court sculptor, in 1581. In 1589, de Vries went to Prague by request of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the greatest patron of the arts on the continent. In this first period of work for the emperor, he made two large bronze statues, Mercury Abducting Psyche, now in the Louvre, and Psyche Borne by Cupids, now in the Nationalmuseum Stockholm.

He then traveled back to Italy to study antiquities in Rome and on his way back made two monumental multi-figure fountains in Augsburg, Germany. In 1601 he was back in Prague where he worked for Rudolf II until the emperor’s death in 1612. Although he was still technically employed at court, Rudolf’s successor, his brother Matthias, does not appear to have commissioned any work from de Vries. The artist found other royal patrons in Germany, Austria and Denmark and continued to produce work until his death in 1626.

De Vries’ innovative approach to bronze casting, modelling and the use of patina to convey differences in color as well as texture made him hugely famous in his time. He created Atlas using the direct lost wax method which models a central wax core with the features of the final sculpture before wrapping it in a fire-resistant casing and heating it so the wax melts. Bronze is then poured into the casing and once it cools, the casing is broken off to reveal the sculpture. Naturally the process results in areas that need additional work — extra blobs of bronze to file off, holes filled, details enhanced — but Atlas appears to have been barely touched. Even the details in the vines on the base and the figure’s head are as de Vries designed them on the wax.

His talents earned Adriaen de Vries the sobriquet the Dutch Michelangelo, but the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War and subsequent conflicts saw his works widely plundered and the memory of him in his homeland faded. The largest single collection of de Vries’ sculptures is in the Museum De Vries at Drottningholm Palace outside of Stockholm. They were all pillaged, most of them from Rudolf II’s collection by Swedish troops in the second Sack of Prague, the last battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, others from the Frederiksborg Palace in Denmark in 1659 during the Dano-Swedish War.

Atlas is one of few works by de Vries to have stayed put for 300 years or so, unpublished and unknown. Since it was one of the last sculptures he ever made, experts believe it was sold by his heirs after his death. The first time it appears in the record is in an engraving from around 1700 of the gardens of the Saint Martin Castle in Graz, Austria. Its path from Prague to Austria is unknown, but the sellers have among their illustrious line an ancestor named Margarethe Leopoldine, Countess Colonna von Fels, who married into the family. Her great-grandfather was Leonhard, Freiherr Colonna von Fels, a prominent Bohemian noble who had actually been present and involved in the famous 1618 Defenestration of Prague when two pro-Catholic Regents and a secretary were tossed out of a window by Bohemian Protestant nobles who justifiably feared the concessions granted them by HRE Matthias would be revoked. Margarethe was born many years later and married in 1693. By then statue would have been a family heirloom of several generations that she brought with her to Austria, perhaps as part of her dowry. She installed it in the courtyard of the family castle where it remained perched on a column until 2010.

For a long time Adriaen de Vries was one of the secrets of art-history, a highly original genius, only know by a handful of insiders. The successful international exhibition devoted to the sculptor that the Rijksmuseum organised together with the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1998-2000, has led to a wider appreciation of his bronzes and a revaluation of his reputation; nowadays he is considered as one of the most important sculptors of the early Baroque.

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