Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Stolen Matisse returns to Venezuela

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Odalisque in Red Pants is back in Venezuela after more than a decade on the lam. The 1925 Matisse painting of a semi-nude woman wearing a pair of red pants was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art as early as 2000. Nobody knows for certain exactly when it was stolen because the thieves replaced it with a fake which was not noticed until 2002. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, it was a really, really bad fake, too, and not just in the small details that experts would recognize. The vase in the front right of the canvas was the wrong color. Not the wrong shade. The wrong color. The original is yellow while the fake is blue.

Matisse made a series of Odalisques in the 1920s. He decorated a corner of his Nice apartment in Moorish style with a low couch, fretwork screens, carpets and colorful wall hangings. He returned again and again to theme of the harem concubine standing, sitting, reclining in sensual poses, clad in languorously draped fabrics or nothing at all. Matisse explained his motivation thus: “I paint odalisques in order to paint the nude. Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial? But also, I know they exist. I was in Morocco. I saw them.” There are Matisse Odalisques in museums all over the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst. Venezuela’s Odalisque in Red Pants was the only one in a Latin American museum.

It was purchased from a New York art gallery in 1981 by Sofia Imber, art critic, collector and founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for $480,000. Its estimated worth today is $3 million. The museum started in Imber’s garage in 1973 became a world-class museum with a collection of about 3,000 works by contemporary masters like Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Kandinsky and Botero.

The theft of the painting came to light in late 2002 when Miami-based Venezuelan gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino alerted museum officials that he had been approached by someone attempting to sell him the Odalisque in Red Pants. After no further leads on the theft for nine years, in 2011 the F.B.I. found out that a Cuban man was attempting to sell the painting in Miami. Agents made a deal with the seller, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, to buy the painting for $740,000 and in July of 2012, agents met with Guzman and a woman named María Martha Ornelas, wife of Guzman’s “Mexican partner,” who carried the Matisse rolled up in a poster tube from Mexico City to a Miami hotel. They told the agents during their sales pitch that the painting was stolen by museum employees and replaced with the crappy fake. After examining the work, the F.B.I. agents arrested the would-be sellers.

Repatriation discussions have been ongoing ever since. Finally on Monday the painting arrived at the Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas where it was greeted by Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito and a live television broadcast.

“It’s generally well preserved,” Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito told local television from Caracas airport where a white box containing the painting was shown upon arrival after a court in south Florida authorized its return.

“This is another achievement of the Bolivarian revolution, of a government in touch with the arts,” the minister said, referring to the country’s 15-year-old socialist government that began in 1999 with the election of the late Hugo Chavez.

Barbarito said the painting would undergo a delicate 72-hour “acclimatization process” and be back on display at the museum in around two weeks. There was damage to the edges of the work but not the painting itself, he said.

That statement about the Bolivarian revolution was a not at all subtle reference to the controversy that has plagued the Venezuelan government’s approach to the arts since January of 2001 when then-President Hugo Chávez announced on his weekly radio broadcast that he had fired Sofia Imber as director of her own museum because “culture ha[d] become elitist as a result of being managed by elites,” and that he was firing her and other “elites” in the first salvo of a “Bolivarian cultural revolution.” The purge was roundly criticized by the art world.

The subsequent discovery of the stolen Matisse and unnoticed fake didn’t exactly cast this “revolution” in a positive light, hence the big show at the airport on Monday.

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Welsh Castles from the Clouds

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Cadw, the Wales’ Historic Environment Service, has launched a neat new initiative as part of its Time Traveller campaign to inspire interest in Welsh history and encourage tourism to Welsh historic sites. It’s a video series called Castles from the Clouds, so named because some of Wales finest castles are filmed by a remote controlled drone carrying high resolution cameras. The videos are short but sweet, providing sweeping bird’s eye view vistas of the castles.

So far there are four videos uploaded to the Cadw YouTube channel, with more to come.

Laugharne Castle:

Laugharne Castle was built in the 13th century on top of a 12th century Norman earth and timber fortification by the de Brian family. It was destroyed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last sovereign prince of Wales. Most of what stands today are the remains of a Tudor-era mansion built by Sir John Perrot who was reputed to be one of Henry VIII’s bastards. In 1644, it was besieged for a week and captured by Parliamentary troops. Already severely damaged by cannon fire, after its capture the castle was slighted (deliberately destroyed in whole or in part) leaving it in ruins. Those ruins inspired Dylan Thomas who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in the castle’s garden gazebo overlooking the estuary of the River Tâf.

Caerphilly Castle:

Caerphilly Castle was watershed (no pun intended) in the history of castle construction. Built by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th century, the castle is encircled by a series of concentric walls and is surrounded by elaborate water defenses, artificial lakes and moats created by the damming a local stream. It’s the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor is number one). By the late 15th century the castle was in decline. By the 18th several towers had collapsed and the waters receded. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the castle was given to the state that the water defenses were re-flooded. One tower still standing today leans even more than a certain tower in Pisa.

Kidwelly Castle:

Kidwelly Castle is a Norman castle that began as a ringwork castle in the 12th century. The stone castle was built in the mid-13th century by the de Chaworth family with the outer defenses added in the 14th century. It remained in English hands until Henry VII gave it to Rhys ap Thomas who had fought for him ably at the Battle of Bosworth. You might recognize it from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

St Davids Bishop’s Palace:

St Davids Bishop’s Palace began life as a monastery in the 6th century. The Norse raiders made a meal of it at least 10 times over the next four centuries. The Normans built a motte and bailey fortification to protect the holy site which held the relics of St. David, patron saint of Wales. A succession of bishops in the late 13th and 14th centuries built the stone structures. Bishop Henry de Gower built the cathedral in the 14th century, including the Great Hall with its beautiful wheel window.

Another bishop, Bishop William Barlow, is largely responsible for its ruin. Initially a Augustinian prior, he became prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation and an active participant in the Dissolution of Monasteries. In 1536, he stripped the Palace’s lead roof to raise money for his daughters’ dowries. Without a roof, the palace began to fall apart. By the 17th century it was considered a derelict hulk unfit for repair.

Subscribe to Cadw’s channel to see new Castles from the Clouds videos as they’re uploaded.

As a dedicated aficionado of coloring (no, I never grew out of it and never will), I must point you towards another aspect of Cadw’s Time Traveller campaign, the printable coloring sheets of Welsh heroes and (there’s one heroine but she’s a rather passive, tragic one). They’re very simple line drawings suitable for crayon work and young colorers. I’d love to see them add more intricate examples.

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Check out this huge Snow White poster

Friday, July 4th, 2014

When Walt Disney’s groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, it was accompanied by one of the largest publicity campaigns in film history. A wide variety of posters, banners and standees were created for distribution to theaters all over the world. Many of them are highly sought after by collectors today, but none more so than the elusive 24-sheet billboard. Made from 24 sheets lithographed separately and then knitted together to form three character groupings spanning an incredible 19-and-a-half feet in width and 9’11″ in height, only a few of them were ever produced and only one of them is known to survive. Behold its awesomeness:

The surviving billboard had lost its bottom left panel, but it has now been fully restored and placed on linen. It’s going up for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale in Dallas on July 19th with a presale estimate of $10,000 – $20,000. That’s actually relatively modest considering that a handsome but much less rare One Sheet is being offered at the same auction with a presale estimate of $5,000 – $10,000. (A fantastic set of standees of Snow White and all Seven Dwarfs is a steal at $2,500 – $5,000, assuming they go that low.)

All of these promotional materials were the work of Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren. The characters — Snow White, The Evil Queen, the Witch, and the Dwarfs — were designed by Albert Hurter and Joe Grant. Disney hired Tenggren, who was already well known for his Arthur Rackham-influenced fairy tale illustrations, in 1936 to create the backgrounds and give the forest and cottage an old world illustration look. He was also in charge of painting the posters and other advertising materials for the movie.

Tenggren then deployed his signature style and exceptional attention to detail in the backgrounds and settings of Pinocchio, particularly the village streets and Gepetto’s Workshop, but his tenure at Disney would be brief. His last movie was Bambi for which he painted intricate forest scenes. They were not ultimately used because they were considered ill-suited to the aesthetic of the picture. Tenggren left Disney in 1939.

In 1942 he went to work for Little Golden Books, illustrating one of the greatest of them all: the immortal The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, which remains in print to this day and is the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in English. For more about Tenggren’s remarkably varied art, see Lars Emanuelsson’s World of Gustaf Tenggren website and Gustaf Tenggren blog.

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The pursuit of Happiness. Period. Or not.

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

The official transcript of the Declaration of Independence puts a period after the iconic phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The transcript is drawn from an 1823 engraving by printer William J. Stone who was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to make a facsimile of the original manuscript on parchment written by Timothy Matlack, clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, and signed by the Continental Congress on August 2nd, 1776. (July 4th is the day the Declaration was officially adopted, not the day John Hancock put his John Hancock on it.) The Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration of Independence.

By the time Stone made his copy, the original was already suffering from condition issues. That’s why he was commissioned to copy it, in fact, so there would be a version for distribution to the surviving signers, their families, luminaries of the Revolution like Lafayette and public institutions nationwide. Stone’s engraving is considered the closest thing we have to the Declaration when it was still legible. The original, now on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is kept in a bulletproof glass case filled with inert argon gas. The writing is so faded as to be next to illegible.

It’s impossible to confirm with the naked eye, therefore, whether there was a period after “the pursuit of Happiness” in the original. Professor Danielle Allen from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, thinks there was not, that Stone made a mistake that has been carried forward nearly two centuries. It’s not pedantry that underpins her analysis. The punctuation plays a significant part in the interpretation of the preamble.

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Several early documents support Allen’s argument. There is no period in any of the official versions written or printed in 1776. Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft has a semicolon after the pursuit of Happiness, just as it does at the end of all the “that” clauses in the sentence. The Dunlap Broadside, printed in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776, uses a triplicate dash, an m-dash followed by a space and a hyphen.

There is a period in an unauthorized leaked version of the Declaration published in Benjamin Towne’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on July 6, 1776. The first official document to include a period after Happiness was the 1777 broadside printed by Mary Katharine Goddard. The first public issue of the Declaration to include the names of all the signatories (minus one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, who may have signed after Goddard’s version was printed), the Goddard broadside was commissioned by Congress for distribution to the states. Goddard and Towne knew each other well. Towne began his career in the print shop of William Goddard, Mary’s father, and Mary had reprinted Towne’s version in her own paper, the Baltimore Journal, on July 10th, 1776. It’s no surprise, therefore, that she stuck with Towne’s punctuation when she printed the official broadside in January of 1777.

Allen thinks the period made its way into Towne’s bootleg printing as an artifact of the many diacritical marks Jefferson included in his drafts to convey the flow of it as a document to be read out loud. You can read her paper about it, Punctuating Happiness, here (pdf). She goes into very persuasive and fascinating detail, analyzing the early written and print versions, breaking down the stylistic differences between John Adams’ work and Thomas Jefferson’s and ever so much more. It is seriously a page-turner and very appropriate reading for the day.

The National Archives found it persuasive as well. They are now looking into making some changes to their online presentation of the Declaration based on her work, and are examining the possibility of deploying new imaging technology to photograph the Declaration through its encasement and reveal details not visible to the naked eye.

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Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

Monday, June 30th, 2014


A portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and his wife Eleanor of Toledo, has been liberated from the atrocious Victorian overpaint that had replaced all her individuality and dignity with a cheeseball beauty standard better suited to a cookie tin lithograph than a Renaissance court painting. The portrait was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1978 when it was reported to be a portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. Bronzino did a portrait of Eleanor wearing a gorgeous brocade dress that is one of the most famous works of the period, but the Carnegie painting was so markedly inferior to that masterpiece that to call the attribution sloppy is a drastic understatement.

The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.

X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.

It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.

Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.

Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.

Isabella was painted repeatedly during her lifetime, often by Alessandro Allori, a prominent Medici court painter and student of Bronzino’s. The Carnegie’s portrait is one of the last.

Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.

Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.

Watch this video to see her in action:

Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.

Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.

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25 quipu found at Inca site south of Lima

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the 15th century Inca archaeological site of Incahuasi, about 90 miles southeast of Lima and 20 miles inland from the coast of central Peru, have found 25 quipu, groups of knotted and dyed strings tied together that were used by the Inca for keeping records. The quipu are in various shapes, sizes and configurations. The longest is two groups of strings tied together to form a row three feet wide, with an additional tail in the center where the two strands meet. The smallest is just a few inches wide, the size of a small notepad.

Quipu (also called “khipus” or “talking knots”) typically consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. They aided in data collection and record-keeping, including the monitoring of tax obligations, census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded on knots in a base-10 positional system. Some quipu had as many as 2,000 cords.

In widespread use for 800 years or so in cultures that had no written language, the quipu were targeted for destruction by the Spanish conquistadors. They were collected and burned. Today only a few hundred have survived because they were used as grave goods. The Incahuasi quipu, on the other hand, were not found in a funerary context but rather unearthed in the city’s warehouses where they were used in the management of whatever was stored there, most likely agricultural products. Ceramic pots recovered from the warehouses are marked with symbols for maize and other crops.

Incahuasi was founded in 1450 by King Túpac Yupanqui who expanded the Inca empire south along the coast and established the city as an administrative and military center for the ongoing campaign against the local Huarcos people who resisted the Inca invaders. He called it New Cusco, after the Inca capital, and planned the city to be a smaller scale replica of the original. The architecture was therefore deliberately grand, meant to convey imperial power. Structures found so far include 64 circular columns, ushnu (terraced pyramids) temples, forts, soldier’s barracks, ceremonial courtyards, warehouses, grain stores on a plan of streets and squares similar to the northern capital. It’s the most important Inca archaeological site in coastal Peru.

The climate is dry, a sub-tropical desert, which required the construction of canals and irrigation systems to enable agriculture. It also preserves organic material like knotted cotton strings. Their condition is so good that conservators have actually been able to iron them, believe it or not. The strings of the longest one were crimped and tangled, so curator Patricia Landa Cragg placed a damn paper towel on top of them and passed an iron over it. The treatment works like a charm, as you can see in the photograph left where the strings on the left side have been ironed while the ones on the right have not. There’s video of Patricia explaining the process on this page (which is currently down but was working fine earlier). The video also shows some of the other quipu found at the site and the recovered ceramic pottery.

For more about this fascinating and complex system of 3D language (there’s some evidence quipu weren’t just used for accounting purposes, but also to record literature and mythology), see Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.

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Rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi Magdalene breaks record

Friday, June 27th, 2014

A rediscovered painting by Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi sold for a world record €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Thursday. The final price including buyer’s premium was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of €200,000-300,000 ($271,568-407,352), driven up by seven bidders competing against each other.

The previous auction record for a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was £419,500 (about $715,000 at today’s exchange rate) set at 1998 Sotheby’s sale in London. It was the same Self-Portrait as a Lute Player that failed to sell at auction due to an overly-optimistic reserve in the millions of dollars last January. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford acquired it in a private sale for an undisclosed sum in March.

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was thought lost, its existent only known from an early 20th century black and white photograph in the library of an Italian art dealer. Sotheby’s experts rediscovered it in a private collection in the south of France where it had been secreted away for 80 years. The old picture is thought to have been taken when the painting was acquired by the family of the current seller for their collection.

It’s no wonder that Mary Magdalene was subject to a bidding war. It is a particularly striking example of Artemisia’s Caravaggio-influenced play of light and dark. A large canvas at 32 by 41 1/3 inches, the piece depicts the Magdalene is the throes of religious ecstasy. The conventional wisdom is that it was painted between 1613 and 1620, the period during which Gentileschi became a highly sought after and respected artist in Florence. Some scholars believe it’s an even earlier work because they see her father’s influence in the color palette while her Florentine work saw her move away from that and develop her own signature style. Her Florentine period also featured more luxurious elements, while this painting is downright Spartan. Sotheby’s Old Masters experts think she painted it shortly after the devastating rape trial in 1611 when she was still in Rome. They believe she may even have used herself as a model, since she wouldn’t have had a great deal of access to paid models as a young woman artist still in her teens.

The abandoned, blissful pose and the way the figure fills the frame is unusual. Artemisia’s father Orazio set his subjects farther back. This composition is all Artemisia, an early glimpse into her burgeoning creative vision. The religious theme illustrated by a figure bathed in a single strong beam of divine light was popular at the time (Caravaggio was a master of the form) but Artemisia’s treatment — the tight framing, Mary pictured as a regular woman without overtly religious iconography, the sheer ecstasy — takes a highly personal approach to the subject. Compare it to two other ecstatic women from her oeuvre, Cleopatra at the moment of her death and Danaë at the moment of her impregnation by Zeus as a shower of gold. Magdalene seems so much more naturalistic and unbridled rather than posed and conventional.

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The Odyssey in LEGO

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

The LEGO construction geniuses of VirtuaLUG have outdone themselves this year, building a vast world that follows the journeys of Odysseus. The LEGO Odyssey was made for Brickworld Chicago 2014, a convention where LEGO artists come together to share knowledge and show their work. VirtuaLUG is known for its large, complex world-building, usually representations of famous literature like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

They outdid themselves this year with The Odyssey. It’s the largest model yet at nearly 300 square feet. The gorgeous Aegean ocean required 400,000-500,000 dots to make. There are just shy of a million in the entire piece. There are moving parts, flashing lights, even a fully functional water feature. The level of detail, the textures of ocean, island, animal and giant, the diverse color palettes and architecture all combine to lend each section its own distinct character. Then there are the whimsical touches, references to the LEGO movie, the inclusion of the VirtuaLUG builders as a ship’s crew and best of all, the trireme crewed entirely by Wookies.

The LEGO version of the Homeric saga starts with Troy and the devious horse that broke the decade-long siege. The sides of the horse are open so you can see the treacherous Greeks waiting within to deliver destruction unto Ilium. From there the model follows Odysseus’ ships as they travel to the Island of the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus’ Island where the sheep are large and adorable, Aeolus’ Island with the neatest mechanics, the Isle of the Laestrygonians, with amazingly dynamic articulated giant cannibals and Odysseus’ destroyed ships in the harbour, Circe’s Island complete with a finely laid out table and formerly human swine, the strikingly black, red and white Hades guarded by Cerebus, the Island of the Sirens, freaky Scylla and churning Charybdis, the Isle of Helios with the god’s adorably sacred cattle, the soaring white highrise temple of Olympus, the craggy white and blue Island of Calypso, and finally Ithaca, crammed with surly suitors and Odysseus’ son and wife fending them off.

There are great pictures on VirtuaLUG’s Flickr page, each with a brief description of the part of the story being represented. To get a real sense of the impressive size and scope of the piece, however, you must view the full tour of the installation guided by VirtualLUG’s Chris Phipson in the video below. It’s long at 22 minutes, but it’s essential viewing because you get to see extremely important details including the swirly multi-colored portal of Hades (8:50), the working fountain in Troy (11:35), the light-up lightning bolt Zeus sent to destroy Odysseus’ ship after his men ate Helios’ sacred cattle (14:08), the unbelievably complex underwater scene with swimming sharks or dolphins chasing a Nereid (15:02) and my personal favorite, the phenomenal moving wind features of the Isle of Aeolus (5:00).

Note: around 16:20 he refers to the Isle of Circe, when in fact it’s the Isle of Calypso. He just mispoke. Earlier in the tour at 5:50 he covers the real Circe bit where Odysseus’ men were turned into swine.

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Ghent Altarpiece extensively overpainted

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

The Ghent Altarpiece, the 18-panel polyptych masterpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, has had a tough life since it was completed in 1432. It’s been taken apart, stolen, split, burned, vandalized, cropped, pawned, hidden and shipped cross-continent. Even its permanent home in Saint Bavo, a glass enclosure built to protect the altarpiece from vandalism and theft, has proven inimical to the painting because of its inability to control temperature and humidity.

In 2008, a committee was convened to address the urgent conservation needs of one of the greatest and most influential works of medieval art ever made. After an in-depth study of each panel in situ, a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative and the creation of a fantastic website of high resolution scans and photographs, in October of 2012 the first eight panels — the outside wings — were removed from the polyptych and brought to a custom-built studio in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. There the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began a campaign of conservation and restoration.

The first cleaning phase saw the removal of yellowed and cracked varnish, much of it a synthetic ketone variety added in the 1950s. Older varnish and overpainting underneath the top layer were targeted next. Conservators also used cleaning windows to investigate the original frames which the van Eyck brothers considered an integral part of the polyptych. The cleaning windows revealed that the polychrome paint layer — a faux stone effect — isn’t all overpaint as was originally thought. There is later overpaint, however, and the cleaning revealed that the quatrains painted on the frames underneath the retouching and overpainting are actually different from the historical transcripts of them, a highly significant discovery.

To those early finds we can now add new information uncovered as the conservation project continues. As the KIK-IRPA conservators worked to clean the outer panels, they discovered that a surprisingly large part of the visible paint layer is actually overpaint. Previous analysis had failed to recognize this because the overpaint follows the age cracks of the original layer. The clothing of almost all the figures, the architectural elements in the background, the sculptures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the highlights on the faces and hands are all overpainted.

This find is of major art historical import, because while the overpainting follows the original closely, those early restorations were workmanlike. They can’t compare to the van Eyck brothers’ gifts for conveying the texture of fabric and the light and shadow. The 3D effect of a fold of clothing that the van Eycks were able to produce was flattened by the subsequent interventions. The overpaint also cut corners, painting over details the restorers weren’t capable of duplicating. When conservators removed the black overpaint from sections of the panel depicting donor Elisabeth Borluut, for example, they found cast shadows and cobwebs hidden underneath.

Paint samples analyzed with a 3D Hirox microscope by Ghent University scientists and by Macro X-Ray Fluorescence at the University of Antwerp confirmed the conservators’ observations. Cleaning tests on the panels determined that the original paint layer is in good condition, with little paint loss or abrasion from the overpaint. The conservation committee thus decided to go ahead and remove the overpaint. The painstaking process involves lifting the top paint layer bit by bit with a scalpel viewed under a binocular microscope.

The next phase of the conservation program will bring the new discoveries and analytical techniques to the interior panels that are still on site at Saint Bavo’s. They too will be studied using 3D Hirox microscope and Macro X-Ray Fluorescence, cleaning windows will reveal the extent of the overpainting and if conditions allow, we may soon see a whole new Ghent Altarpiece that hasn’t been seen in 500 years or so.

Meanwhile, thanks to financing from the Flemish government, the micro climate of the altarpiece’s glass enclosure has been stabilized. New LED lights thermic isolation liners now keep the temperature and relative humidity steady, protecting the wood and paint of the polyptych from dangerous fluctuations in heat and moisture. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will keep the altarpiece safe for the medium long-term.

Once this conservation project is complete, the Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece website which currently hosts the beautiful high resolution images of the altarpiece, will be expanded to cover the new discoveries and analyses. It will also feature a documentary on the current conservation program.

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Hundred Years’ War playing cards on Kickstarter

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

I love playing cards and I love history. Put them together and my heart grows three sizes that day. Since I’m not likely to get my grubby hands on, say, a gilt silver deck from 1616 that sold at auction for more than a half million dollars four years ago, I have to make do with more modest targets to assuage my covetousness.

Limited edition gold and silver packs of Hundred Years’ War cards printed by the United States Playing Card Company, makers of the classic Bicycle® brand of playing cards, would step very nicely unto the breach, dear friends. SPAAAADE&Co. has launched a Kickstarter project to fund the production of these cards. Their fundraising goal is $20,000. With eight days to go, they’ve raised $14,862. It would be an intense bummer if they got so close but failed to meet the goal, so go pledge now and book your set. One deck of each color is the reward for the $24 level, which you could easily pay for a couple of decks of far less awesome playing cards. Then there are fancier collector’s box sets and bricks with multiple decks and posters and uncut sheets and all kinds of neat rewards at the higher levels.

The art work was designed in collaboration with award-winning illustrator Hanuku and it is as beautiful as it is nerdy. Each color is represented by one of the sides in the Hundred Years’ War. The black suits are the French and the red suits the English. The number card designs are fairly standard, but the face cards, aces and card backs and packs are rich with historical references.

Ace cards are delicately designed using symbols and medieval motifs that represent each dynasty involved in the war.

Court Cards feature the major historic figures of the war. We’ve put real efforts to create a modern interpretation of the medieval costume designs and combine them with traditional court card elements. Court cards depict exceptional details with modern classic features. [...]

The back of the deck symbolizes the confrontation of two dynasties.

The Valois fleurs de lys crest faces off against the quartered crest of Edward III where the Plantagenet lions split the shield with the French fleurs de lys. Between them lie two crossed swords.

The face cards are the best. The Queen of Spades is Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI; the Queen of Clubs is none other than Joan of Arc. Okay, so technically she wasn’t a queen, but as a peasant fighter who turned the war around for France and probably the single most recognizable figure of the conflict, she is the perfect icon for the card. On the English side, the Queen of Diamonds is Catherine of Valois, Henry V’s wife, and the Queen of Hearts is Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III.

The Kings aren’t identified yet on the Kickstarter page, but if I were to hazard a guess based solely on the design, I’d say the King of Hearts is Edward III and the King of Diamonds Henry V, which would make sense with the Queen pairings as well. If the pairings hold for the Valois side as well, that would make the King of Spades Charles VI and the King of Clubs Charles VII, but they don’t really look like any images of those kings I know of.

The Jacks are badass too. The Jack of Spades is, to my utter delight, Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s comrade in arms, Marshal of France, and convicted serial killer of hundreds of boys. The Jack of Clubs is Étienne de Vignolles, another of Joan’s closest comrades and a fighter of great skill who is the traditional face of the Jack of Hearts in French playing cards. The Jack of Diamonds is Edward, the Black Prince, the hugely successful military leader son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The Jack of Hearts is Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, one of Edward III’s most trusted lieutenants.

Irresistible, is it not? Spread the word and let’s get this thing funded.

 

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