Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

As part of their 2010 agreement to fund the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative stipulated that the entire process be documented and photographed in dizzyingly high resolution and every detail from dendrochronology reports to pictures of a few inches worth of newly cleaned paint be uploaded to a dedicated website. Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of online information sharing, a worthy helpmeet, technologically speaking, to the massive oak panel polyptych painted in the first half of the 15th century by Hubert Van Eyck and his brother Jan that is an icon of Belgium, Early Netherlandish art and an art historical watershed.

The altarpiece, formally known as The Mystic Lamb of 1432, is in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, and has remained on public view during years of restoration, study, research and documentation. Not a great view, mind you, what with all the people and stuff going on, but they built a protective transparent enclosure to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the greatest people in their fields, from carpenters to retouchers, work on one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. The creation of the Closer to Van Eyck site with its dense database of information and unparalleled pictorial documentation made it possible for the whole world to see with their naked eyes things that were not only the purview of a select group of professionals, but that even said professionals could not see with their naked eyes.

When I first discovered the website in 2012, I spent a whole weekend immersed in its Chutes and Ladders-like maze of fascinating content. I checked it regularly for years afterwards, but my interest eventually petered off when I found it wasn’t getting fresh updates. I saw yesterday when writing about the Caravaggio exhibition that the Getty Foundation and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels had big news regarding Closer to Van Eyck. The site has had a major update and now has brand new photographs in nosebleed high res of the polyptych at various stages in the conservation process. There are more technical images available — it started out with just X-rays, now that’s just scratching the surface of their offerings — and a freaking cool feature that allows you to compare several views of the panels at the same time.

The altarpiece was painstakingly recorded at every step of the conservation process through state-of-the-art photographic and scientific documentation. Thanks to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage’s imaging team, digital processing and design led by Frederik Temmermans of Universum Digitalis and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and imec’s Department of Electronics and Informatics, the altarpiece can now be viewed online in visible light, infrared, infrared reflectograph, and X-radiograph, with sharper and higher resolution images than ever before. Visitors to the site can now also adjust a timeline to view key moments in the conservation process, and have access to simultaneous viewing of images before, during, and after conservation. Users can zoom in even closer on details of the painting, exploring microscopic views of the work in 100 billion pixels. […]

“We are proud and pleased to now also offer unparalleled access to the results of the first stage of the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Dr. Ron Spronk, professor of Art History at the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who initiated and coordinated Closer to Van Eyck. “Our site provides images and research materials of unprecedented quality and scope, both on and below the paint surface that will serve both specialists and general audiences for many years to come. We truly have come much, much closer to Van Eyck.”

Not least because they discovered that the vast majority of Van Eyck’s original brushwork had been overpainted, more than 70% of it, so most of what people have been seen of the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t Van Eyck’s paint at all. Much of the conservation work done thus far was dedicated to removing as much as the overpaint as possible to reveal the artist’s true hand without damaging the delicate original paint layers beneath.

This website is unbelievable. It’s captures all my favorite things: technology in aid of cultural patrimony, specialized skills being taught to a new generation, rich content clearly displayed for all to enjoy without firewalls or payment, and good Ghent almighty praise be to the massive photographs. The weekend is over, but you might need to take a personal day off work so you can have all the time you need to get microscope-close to Jan Van Eyck.

I would suggest you start here with a tour of the site to get a feel for the layout and organization from their very brief and clear video summaries, then bounce around the menu climbing ladders and falling down chutes. Stock up on water and snacks because you won’t be budging from your seat for hours.

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Vivid color and a prosciutto clock from Pompeii

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

By a series of link-hops that began with archaic Greece and what I hope will soon be a post of its own (it all depends on whether I can get my grubby mits on good pictures), today I wound up in Pompeii. With a prosciutto. A prosciutto-shaped sundial, to be exact. It was portable, as far as we know the earliest portable sundial surviving, which is even more notable a title when you consider that it’s made out of bonze and managed to make it through the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. intact.

It dates the 1st century A.D. and was first unearthed on June 11th, 1755, in the early Bourbon-era excavations of the site of Herculaneum. The sundial was found in the House of the Papyri, a handsome private villa where a library of charred scrolls were discovered. The scrolls got the lion’s share of the attention, but the silver-gilt bronze portable sundial so recognizably shaped like a prosciutto hanging from the bone while it cures did get some love from the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, the ambitious knowledge compendium edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

Drawing of both sides of the sundial in Antiquita di Ercolano, 1762.The only problem is the description was not particularly accurate. (Many of the entries in the Encyclopédie left something to be desired in that arena.) The sundial was “in the form of a sleeve,” according to them. In 1762, the first scholarly work to recognize the prosciutto clock for its awesomeness was published. It was the third volume of a much less general encyclopedia — Antiqities of Herculaneum — and the authors corrected the factual errors, barely disguising their contempt that the French encyclopedists couldn’t even recognize a prosciutto when they saw one. Horologists have been discussing the ham with undiminished fervor ever since.

The sundial is now part of the permanent collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. It was briefly in New York City this spring as part of the Time and Cosmos exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. That’s where it found a new fan who introduced new technology to the investigation of the sundial.

Now the “pork clock” ticks once more. Recently re-created through 3-D printing, a high-fidelity model of the sundial is helping researchers address questions about how it was used and the information it conveyed.

The model confirms, for instance, that using the whimsical timepiece required a certain amount of finesse, says Wesleyan University’s Christopher Parslow, a professor of classical studies and Roman archaeology who made the 3-D reconstruction. All the same, “it does represent a knowledge of how the sun works, and it can be used to tell time.” […]

After Parslow was asked about the pork clock, he was inspired to build a 3-D model. He took dozens of photos of the timepiece at its home institution, Italy’s National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A 3-D printer at his university churned out the model—in plastic rather than the original silver-coated bronze—in a matter of hours.

Like the original, Parslow’s model bears a dial, in the form of a slightly distorted grid, on one side. The vertical lines are marked for the months of the year. The horizontal lines indicate the number of hours past sunrise or before sunset.

The original clock is missing its gnomon, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, but an 18th-century museum curator described it having one in the shape of a pig’s tail, so Parslow re-created that, too.

Parslow then experimented with the sundial outdoors. The clock is hung from a string so that the sun falls on its left side, allowing the attached pig’s tail to cast a shadow across the grid.

The user aligns the clock so that the tip of the tail’s shadow falls on the vertical line for the current month. Finally, the user counts the number of horizontal lines from the top horizontal line to the horizontal line closest to the tip of the shadow. That indicates the number of hours after sunrise or before sunset.

It’s conceivable that he might even be able to tell time to the half-hour, but without the original gnomon he’s having to tinker with curly tail to get the most detailed readings, and it’s not at all clear that the device was meant to be all that precise. A portable sundial was a prestige item more than a practical one and nobody was counting billable hours in 15 minute increments.

The Prosciutto Clock led me to another extraordinary image, this one tweeted by the Pompeii Sites account. This is the collection of pigment cups left behind by painters fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., most of them with the pigments or raw materials thereof still in brilliant color.

Following the trail of Internet breadcrumbs, I found Dr. Sophie Hay’s reply to the Pompeii Sites’ tweet of the rainbow of pigment jars. She was on the team that excavated those pots, which is insanely cool. The containers and their dazzling contents came from a painter’s workshop near the House of the Chaste Lovers where an unfinished fresco, a red frame around a white square, was found. On the same insula — a large multi-use block of more than 1500 square meters with homes, retail like a bakery and wine shop, and artisan workshops — a room was found in classic Pompeiian “frozen in time” mode. Apparently before the eruption a crew was working on the hydraulic network while painters had started redecorating the frescoes in the main hall. They had just finished the preparatory drawings when something suddenly came up, almost certainly Vesuvius’ roasting hot insides. The artists must have been in a rush because they left all of the pigments, which were certainly expensive not to mention necessary to their livelihood, behind. This great find gave the structure its modern name: the House of the Painters at Work.

The House of the Chaste Lovers, named after a completed fresco depicting a modest kiss at a dinner, belonged to wealthy baker (the bakery storefront next door was apparently his) and is an exceptional survival in a lot of ways. It’s one of very few two-story buildings in Pompeii with the second story still attached to it. The bakery’s oven and millstones are intact, as are two of its stables, complete with skeletal remains of seven animals. It has been excavated off and on since 1982, and the public have only been allowed in on very rare occasions. The week of Valentine’s Day this year was one those occasions, a tribute to the famous fresco with its sweet kiss on the reclining couch.

The pigment bowls were no longer in situ by then. In 2014, Professor Massimo Osanna, Director General of the Pompeii archaeological site, deposited the entire collection of pigments cups in the Laboratory of Applied Research which specializes in the study and conservation of Pompeii’s unique combination of archaeological materials, including organic, mineral and lithic remains. It has a state-of-the-art climate control system to keep the most delicate remains from degrading, and is therefore best equipped to preserve the vivid color of the ancient pigments.

Graphic artist Gareth Blayney made a series of drawings of how the shopfronts might have looked before the Vesuvian apocalypse for Dr. Hay and they are all beautiful, but the one of the paint shop truly does the riot of pigment jars justice.

Gareth Blayney: Pompeii Prints &emdash;

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Irma canoe could date to the 1600s

Friday, October 6th, 2017

Researchers have wasted no time studying the dugout canoe churned up in Brevard County, Florida, by Hurricane Irma and rescued by photographer and local history buff Randy Lathrop. The first round of radiocarbon dating results are in and they tease a solid likelihood that the canoe is much older than Lathrop thought it might be. Or younger. Or a little of both.

According to the Florida Division of Historical Resources archaeologist who examined it and performed the radiocarbon analysis, there is:

• A 50 percent probability the wood used to make the canoe dates between 1640 to 1680.

• A 37.2 percent probability the wood dates between 1760 to 1818.

• An 8.6 percent probability that it dates to 1930 or later.

“It is important to note that this gives us the probability of when the log used to make the canoe died or was cut down,” said Sarah Revell, Florida Department of State spokeswoman.

“The canoe has some interesting features, like the presence of paint and wire nails, that indicate it may have been made in the 19th or 20th century, so this adds to the mystery,” she said. […]

Revell offered some possible explanations. In one scenario, the canoe was made in the 1800s or 1900s, but from an old log. Or, perhaps the canoe was made in the 1600s or 1700s, saw use for many years, and was modified over time. Then again, though the probability is lower, someone could have crafted the canoe during the 1900s, she said.

“Florida has the highest concentration of dugout canoes in the world. We have more than 400 documented dugout canoes in our state. Each canoe is important in that it adds to our database and helps fill out the picture of how people used these canoes over thousands of years,” Revell said.

“This canoe is unique in that the radiocarbon dating indicates the wood is very old, but it has features that indicate it is more modern — so it is a bit of a mystery,” she said.

The Bureau of Archeological Research (BAR) will be doing some additional testing on the paint as they begin conservation protocols to keep the wood from drying out. The aim is to put the canoe on display in Brevard so it can be enjoyed in the community where it was found. That won’t happen until the wood is stabilized and that can take more than a year, even for a smaller piece like this canoe.

While it is being cleaned and soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol for months, the canoe will still be able to be studied by researchers near and far. It has already been laster scanned and documented in high resolution detail to generate a 3D model that will give scholars, conservators, experts and educators the opportunity to virtually examine the canoe. This will help with every aspect of the study — determining its age, origin, design style, condition, conservation needs — and in future education efforts. This video shows University of South Florida Libraries 3D imaging experts working with local archaeologists to scan the dugout canoe.

And here is the end-result of that effort, a highly accurate 3D model that can be turned and zoomed and seen every which way:

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New video of wreck of Mars warship

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

The wreck of the 16th century Swedish warship Mars, flagship of King Eric XIV (r. 1560-1568), son of Gustav Vasa, first of his dynasty and first king of an independent Sweden, has been captured in defiance of visibility conditions at the bottom of the Baltic in a crystalline combination of footage and 3D rendering.

In an ironic twist that isn’t all that ironic given the length of time involved, King Gustav Vasa had begun to build a permanent, state-run Swedish navy (as opposed to the medieval system of drafting merchant vessels for war duties as needed) with ships he bought from the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. After his death in 1560, his son Eric picked up where Dad left off, investing heavily in the development of a navy that could protect his crown, still tenuous given his father’s rebellion. Grasping at straws of legitimacy wherever he could find them, Eric slapped all those numbers after his name, claiming descent from ever so many Erics before him, real or legendary, related or not.

His Danish cousins were not impressed. They considered him a usurper just like his father. One of Eric’s solutions was to ramp up Swedish naval strength to control trade on the Baltic. Big ships were a key part of this plan. In 1561, he engaged master shipwright Holgerd Olsson to build the biggest ship yet. It was Eric’s idea to call it the Mars after the Roman god of war, telegraphing even more clearly his bellicose intent. Mars was completed in the fall of 1563, just in time for the fireworks. Also known as the Makalös (Matchless), the ship was big, the largest ever up until that point on the Baltic. It was said to be longer than Lübeck’s cathedral of St. Peter.

The Danes didn’t appreciate Eric’s ambitious encroachment on their turf in the lucrative Baltic market and neither did Lübeck. In 1563, the conflict escalated into the Northern Seven Years’ War. It was Sweden against Denmark–Norway, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian union. Sweden’s navy was already intimidating compared to its rivals. It had 38 ships, 16 of them large warships. The Mars was armed with at least 100 guns, perhaps as many as 200, depending on which source you believe. Its heavy artillery enabled it to fight at a distance, eschewing the old-fashioned boarding followed by hand-to-hand combat tactics that had dominated naval warfare for so long.

When the Mars and other Swedish warships went up against the fleets of Denmark, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian union off the coast of the Swedish island of Öland on May 30th, 1564, at first Mars seemed to dominate the field. With those big guns of hers, she disabled the Danish flagship Fortuna and sank the Lübeckian ship Alte Bark. The Danish and Lübeckian commanders realized they would have to board her or face certain defeat. On day two of the engagement, they managed to do just that. The only problem is the Mars was on fire. The enemy crews only had enough time to board her and initiate looting procedures before they were all blown sky high in an explosion so powerful that it shot the ship’s mainmast straight up in the air like a crossbow bolt. The Mars sank quickly, taking many coins, cannons and lives to the cold Baltic seafloor with it.

After decades, centuries even, of fruitless searches, in 2011 the wreck of the Mars was found near Öland 250 feet below the surface of the water. Even though it went down in such a spectacular fashion, it was in excellent condition. Its guts were exposed in the explosion, but the wood has been perfectly preserved by the Baltic’s slow currents, cold water and lack of woodworm.

From its discovery in 2011 through 2015, marine archaeologists have been studying the wreck under very difficult conditions. It’s so deep and cold, visibility is literally zero and it’s not possible to dive in a regular way. They needed a special mix of gases to protect them from the bends, and documenting the wrack in total darkness required specialized scanning equipment.

Over the course of several years, a research team led by Johann Rönnby, professor of maritime archaeology at Sweden’s Södertörn University, has photographed and scanned the 453-year-old wreck Mars, the legendary flagship of Swedish King Erik XIV. […]

The Mars wreck site was discovered in 2011 by Rönnby’s team near the Swedish island of Öland. Initial investigations of the vessel, lying at a depth of 250 feet, indicated that a combination of slow currents and a dark and cold environment helped to facilitate the stunning preservation of the wooden warship.

National Geographic helped fund the research, so keep your eyes peeled for the story to air on its cable channel. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of the breathtaking footage and rendering drawn from a site that requires hand-held Klieg lights to see even a tiny part of it.

Deep Sea Productions filmed the exploration of the wreck for a documentary. Below is a brief introductory video to the production and a surprisingly enjoyable clip of reenactments from the film. I’m not a fan of what I deem to be an overreliance on reenactments in history documentaries because I find them a cheesy shortcut to generate feeble “action scenes” as if the history itself couldn’t possibly keep bums in seats. I have to admit these look not too bad. (Still not good tho.)

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Take a 3D tour through Rothwell charnel chapel

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Rothwell charnel chapel is the UK’s most complete surviving medieval charnel house, rooms used to contain the bones of the dead to make room in cemeteries for the next generation of corpses. The charnel chapels attached to churches in the Middle Ages weren’t scary places. They were well-lit, clean, sturdily built with permanent access from the exterior (doors, stairways) so the general public could visit and pay their respects to the dead. Rothwell Parish Church built its charnel room under the church and contains the remains of at least hundreds of people who died in the Middle Ages.

It’s difficult to know how many charnel chapels existed in medieval Britain. Historians have generally thought they were fairly rare compared to their frequency on the continent, but researchers from the University of Sheffield think they have located as many as 60, or at least what little is left of them Time and the destruction wrought by the Reformation took an incalculable toll. That’s why Rothwell’s is so significant. One of only two medieval charnel chapels still remaining in situ (the other is St Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent), it is largely intact and still contains human skeletal remains placed there between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins, who led the project from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Rothwell charnel chapel is a site of major international significance. Surviving charnel chapels, with human remains still housed inside, are very rare in England. What is so fascinating about the Rothwell charnel chapel it is that it presents an ideal archaeological resource for researchers to use to advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period.

With so little hard data to go on, many historians thought charnel houses were of minor religious import even in their heyday in England, that they were just places to store bones dug up from the intercutting of new graves or during church construction. The University of Sheffield’s Rothwell Project has upended that belief. It wasn’t until the 13th century that charnel houses and chapels began to be constructed. Before that, dug up bones were reinterred in the new grave or in mass pits. The new charnel spaces of the 13th century were the first time human skeletal remains were kept above ground in meaningful quantities. That’s a major shift in attitude and approach, and it can’t be explained in utilitarian terms because reburying the bones is a lot easier, cheaper and faster than building an above-ground space for them.

Rothwell Project researchers think this shift is connected to the doctrine of Purgatory receiving official Church recognition in 1254. Souls suffering the torments of purgation could be sped on their way to heaven by the prayers and hymns of the living on their behalf. Charnel chapels in mainland Europe are known to have had confessionals and been treated as places or repentance and forgiveness. English charnel chapels also had priests whose duty it was to hear confessions and offer absolution. The Sheffield team thinks all this is linked together, that charnel chapels, like chantries in the churches above them, provided the public with the opportunity to pray for the souls of the departed still locked in purgatory and to avoid the same fate themselves. The rejection of purgatory and confession by Protestants explains why the charnel chapels and their human remains were so cruelly disposed of during the Reformation. The bones were reburied, often in unconsecrated ground, and the rooms either walled up so no trace of them was visible from the outside or reused for random purposes rented out to local merchants for cool storage.

Unfortunately Rothwell charnel chapel is not widely accessible as an archaeological resource, no matter how valuable it might be, because it can’t accommodate human traffic (not of the living kind, anyway) due its delicate preservation conditions. The space is tight, keeping moisture and temperature steady is a challenge, and one false move could irreparably damage the structure and human remains.

In this day and age, there are other options. The Digital Ossuary is a collaboration between the University’s archaeology and computer science departments which has captured the physical space of the charnel chapel, its proportions, where the medieval access points were, high-resolution detail of the bones which will allow osteological study that was previously impossible as well as help determine conservation practices for the long-term preservation of the charnel.

“This new digital resource provides an opportunity for people all over the world to explore the site and helps us to preserve this fascinating window into the past for future generations.” […]

The new digital resource, together with research on the chapel, will be fed into undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for archaeology students at the University of Sheffield.

Archaeologists leading the project are also welcoming the input of researchers who might be interested in working with the model, which has been published via ORDA, the University’s file sharing platform.

And now, without further ado, here is the 3D flythrough of Rothwell Parish Church’s charnel chapel.

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Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reunited online in live relay

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh painted five of his most famous works, the Sunflower series, from August 1888 to January 1889 when he was living in Arles in the South of France. Each of the paintings depict a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase using three shades of yellow (there’s blue in the backgrounds and in some accents). This was a deliberate choice by the artist, his attempt to convey the vibrancy and variety of the flower with the color most characteristic of it. He also used thick, layered brushstrokes, a bold impasto that captured the dimension of the sunflower head and seeds as well as their color.

Van Gogh had explored sunflowers before. When he lived in Paris with his brother Theo in 1887, he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers, two to four cut blooms withering on the floor. They were very different in palette and mood to the bright bouquets of the Arles works. In a letter from August of 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother that he’d returned to the subject with a new approach:

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers. […]

Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go”

The new series of sunflowers was meant to be as welcoming and warm as the one he fondly recalled from the shop next door. Van Gogh was expecting a guest in a few months, his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. He had an idea that they might live and work together sharing a studio, a studio that would be decorated entirely with sunflowers, hence his plan for a dozen paintings in the series. He never got that far, nor did the two artists get a studio together, but Gaugin did come to visit him in the aptly named Yellow House at Arles, and Van Gogh hung two of the sunflower paintings on the walls of his room.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888-9. The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection, 1963. Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.Paul loved them so much he point-blank asked Van Gogh if he could keep one. Vincent wanted to make his friend happy — they had fought during Gaugin’s stay and he left earlier than planned on a rancorous note — but he was so desperately strapped for cash and so concerned that Theo, who was engaged to be married, have some money to make a home for his new bride, that Paul’s request put him in an awkward position. He wrote to Theo that he would let Gaugin have one of the sunflowers and redo it so Theo could exhibit it and perhaps sell it.

You’ll see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I’d advise you to keep them for yourself, for the privacy of your wife and yourself.

It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things:

“that — … that’s… the flower.”

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.

He didn’t know how right he was. His Arles Sunflowers are now in top museums on three continents: The National Gallery, London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. The five will be reunited for the first time in virtual space on August 14th in a Facebook Live event. Curators from each museum will speak for 15 minutes about the paintings in a globe-trotting relay dedicated to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers.

This video from the National Gallery gives a brief introduction to the paintings and the #SunflowersLive event:

The Van Gogh Museum, meanwhile, has created a virtual tour of the Sunflowers so you can explore them at your leisure accompanied by Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo van Gogh. They’re also the only one of the museums to have a fully zoomable high resolution image of their Sunflowers painting on their website (see the link above). You can get way, way up in the details of the work, and you can’t put a price on that especially with an artist like Van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so meaningful.

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Unravelling the mystery of the Chimney Map

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

When the National Library of Scotland acquired the balled up bundle of rags that turned out to be an extremely rare example of a 17th century world map by Dutch cartographer Gerald Valck, their first priority was rescuing what was left of it. It was in terrible condition, with large sections decayed beyond recovery and some of the surviving sections reduced to a shower of confetti on the table. Paper conservator Claire Thomson wasn’t even sure the map could be saved.

It took six months, but the conservation team accomplished the impossible, removed the canvas backing, cleaned the paper and put the cartographic Humpty Dumpty back together again. The restored map went on public display for the first time at the National Library in Edinburgh earlier this year. Due to its fragile condition, it was only exhibited for a month (March 13-April 16).

“Maps were largely symbols of power at this time,” said Paula Williams, map curator at the National Library. “They were very expensive to make and even more expensive, relatively, for people to buy. Whoever owned this map wanted to display their own power.”

As the map is Dutch, it represents a world view as seen from Amsterdam, complete with colonial ambitions. Australia, for example, appears as New Holland and the rivalry with their old enemy Spain is represented by a depiction of atrocities committed by Spanish invaders in South America.

Dr Esther Mijers, a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh said: “This map throws up more questions than it can answer. It would be wonderful if people wanted to do more research on the map and its story.”

Thankfully, a lot of people do. With the map, of just three known in the world, salvaged, researching its mysterious origin took on new prominence. When the map was first given to the National Library, it was believed to have been stuffed up the chimney of a house in Aberdeen. The story was it was discovered during the renovation of the house, rescued from the trash and delivered to the library.

It promptly became known as the Chimney Map because of its purported discovery spot, but that now appears to be a misconception. It seems to have been found under a floorboard during renovations in the 1980s. The house was formerly part of the Castle Fraser estate and since the castle is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, their researchers are in full Nancy Drew mode hoping to discover more about the history of this exceptional map and how it wound up in that house outside of Aberdeen.

The National Library is on the investigation too, and they got a hot lead thanks to their YouTube video of the conservation of the Chimney Map. Les Yule, the original finder of the map 15 years ago, and Aberdeen schoolteacher Brian Crossan, the person who gave it to the National Library in 2016, got in touch with NLS researchers. Because they’re awesome and they show their work to public in the most thorough way possible, National Library of Scotland staff starting filming Les and Brian as they look for the house, its owner and find spot. Their first meeting with conservator Claire Thomson was captured on video, as was their collaboration in sniffing out the real history of this remarkable map whose checkered, obscure past has fired the imagination of so many.

That video has now been uploaded to YouTube and it’s worth every minute of the 14:45 running time.

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Edward Hopper in Motion

Monday, May 15th, 2017

It’s the 50th anniversary of Edward Hopper’s death today. To celebrate the realist painter’s oeuvre, Orbitz (yes, the discount travel site) has created animated versions of nine of his most recognizable and iconic works.

I generally enjoy attempts to add dimension to stills or artworks, for instance the recent trend in documentaries to give a 3D effect to old photographs. A subtle animated element can be effective as long as it makes sense in the context of the scene and it isn’t just distracting. All in all, I find the Hopper animations fairly good. There are some things I’d do differently, mainly fewer short repetitive loops and more smooth continuous action. Some elements — smoke over coffee cups, flickering neon signs — look too rushed. However, Hopper’s characteristic urban scenes often depicted through a window with us as the voyeurs lend themselves well to this sort of treatment. With a few adjustments, it would make a damn cool Tumblr.

Morning Sun and New York Movie are probably my favorites. The slow brightening of the scene in the former brings the title into the action, and the moving picture actually moving is nicely handled in the latter. The flicker in the theater is a bit overdone, in my opinion, with too strong a contrast of light and dark. It doesn’t match what’s being shown on the screen.

I was most looking forward to Nighthawks, but alas, it’s my least favorite of the animations. The blinking light is on too short of a loop and it doesn’t really match the scene because it’s the interior lighting of the diner that flickers instead of a neon sign like Chop Suey. Neon signs flicker all the time. The blinking neon light has become an iconic representation of night life — a little rundown, a little busted, but still vital in its color and brightness. If all the lights in a diner kept turning off and on, you’d just call the power company, and you certainly wouldn’t settle in for the night to enjoy the splendid urban isolation because it would be freaking torture.

The descriptive blurbs on the side are well done. My one criticism there is that they should link to the original paintings instead of just telling you which museums they’re in now.

 

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Mode Persuasive Cartography collection digitized

Monday, May 8th, 2017

Map Showing Isle of Pleasure by H.J. Lawrence, 1931. Satire of Prohibition shortly before its repeal. Image courtesy the PJ Mode Collection.Persuasive cartography is decidedly more the former than the latter. Its aim is to sell a product or influence opinion using the aesthetic allure and/or the impression of scientific rigor conveyed by maps. The actual science of mapmaking — accurate renditions of land masses, roads, structures, topographical features — isn’t the point, except insofar as it lends the cachet of objectivity to a pitch.

Retired lawyer PJ Mode began collecting maps after seeing an exhibition of old and unusual maps at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1980. Over the years he began to narrow his focus to maps of the persuasive persuasion, fascinated by the reasoning behind them. With the advent of the Internet, finding new cartographical gems and researching their background has become increasingly accessible. Today PJ Mode has more than 800 persuasive maps in his collection.

Last month, more than 500 of them were digitized by the Cornell University Library. Now there are 862 of them. They can be browsed by subject or date, you can just load the whole shebang and go through them front to back, or you can limit by date, date range, creator or subject from there. I’m partial to the subject divisions which convey a real sense of how far-reaching this medium was. Almost 200 of the maps are in the Advertising & Promotion category, and they are some of the most aesthetically interesting. The Niagara Belt Line uses one of the most spectacular views in the world to promote its electric trolley line.

The Niagara Belt Line by Hiram Harold Green, 1917. Image courtesy the PJ Mode Collection.

Birds-Eye View of San Francisco by Peruvian Bitters, 1880. Image courtesy the PJ Mode Collection.A good image can sell even the worst product, as any advertiser knows. Patent medicines, most of which were useless at best, active poisons at worst, needed all the colorful artwork they could get: see Peruvian Bitters, for example, which used a literal bird carrying an ad for the product over a bird’s-eye view of San Francisco to flog its bogus cure for malaria, dyspepsia, addiction and unhappiness.

Two Queens Mines by Raymond T May, 1907. Image courtesy the PJ Mode Collection.Even the plain ones without fancy graphics are intriguing because the dry presentation is often used to legitimize an extremely questionable proposition, like the Northern Pacific Railroad Gold Bonds or the Two Queens Mines in Australia, which was a straight-up scam.

The greatest number of maps, 349, are in the pictorial subject which covers an extraordinary amount of ground from military to political to moral advocacy. There’s even an edition of a map very similar to one I own in giant foldout poster form: a timeline of world history from a Genealogical Chronological & Geographical Chart by Jacob Skeen, 1887. Image courtesy the PJ Mode Collection.Biblically literal creationist perspective. Other subject categories you can browse include Alcohol, Heaven & Hell (schematics of Dante’s Inferno are always popular), Poverty, Prostitution, Crime, Slavery, Suffrage, Railroads, and lots and lots of wars.

All of the digitized maps are available for download in high resolution (the full Niagara view was so huge my server couldn’t even handle it, and my server is used to the strain, believe me), or if you prefer, can be zoomed in extreme closeup on the Cornell site itself. Fair warning: this is a timesink of gloriously massive proportions. The How Japan Could Attack U.S. by Howard Burke for the Los Angeles Examiner, November 7, 1937. A prescient map of how Japan could attack the US starting with Hawaii. Image courtesy the PJ Mode Collection.information on each entry was written by PJ Mode himself based on his research. He makes no claim to flawless understanding, so if you find something you think might be inaccurate, you’re encouraged to click on the “Contact” link at the bottom of the page and let folks know.

Speaking of which, the following video is 50 minutes long, but it’s so worth it. It’s a talk PJ Mode delivered last year to The Grolier Club and the New York Map Society about persuasive cartography. Unlike most lecture videos, the people doing the talking only appear rarely. The vast majority of the presentation is of the maps being projected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been irritated by the neglect of the visual aids in recordings of these types of events. Whoever filmed this talk deserves an award. Be sure to watch it full screen so you can see the small details of the map as large as possible.

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Tour Ireland’s Sheela-na-Gigs with Heritage Maps

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Sheela-na-Gig, Kilpeck Church. Photo by Nessy-Pic.Ireland’s Heritage Council and Heritage Maps have launched a new dataset mapping all the Sheela-na-Gigs in situ and in collections around Ireland. Sheela-na-Gigs are female figures often characterized by bands across the forehead, visible ribs, and most notably, their hands spreading their vulvas wide open. They are found in the UK and to a lesser degree on the continent (mainly France and Spain), but Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-na-Gigs. They are most commonly seen in churches and monasteries, usually ones of medieval Romanesque design or in newer ones that incorporate salvaged elements of earlier religious structures on the site. They are also found in lay buildings like castles.

Discussing the launch of this new cultural resource and the St. Patrick connection, renowned UCC folklorist Shane Lehane suggests “that perhaps the key to understanding the inherited notion that St Patrick had a wife, Sheela, is to explore the hugely interesting archaeological manifestation that also bears her name: the Sheela-na-Gig”.

Sheela-na-Gig, Cavan County Museum.“In Ireland, there are over 110 examples of these, oft misunderstood, medieval stone carvings of naked, old women exposing their genitalia. They are often positioned in medieval tower-houses, medieval church sites and holy wells. Up to recently these were seen as figures representing the evils of lust or as ways of averting the ‘evil eye’. More convincing reassessments have reinterpreted the Sheela-na-gig, in line with the Cailleach, as belonging to the realm of vernacular folk deities associated with the life-giving powers of birth and death. Placed with the cycles of both the natural and agricultural year and the human life cycle, she can be regarded as the embodiment of the cycle of fertility that overarches natural, agricultural and human procreation and death”.

Speaking about the launch of the Sheela-na-Gig map, Beatrice Kelly, Heritage Council Head of Policy & Research, stated, “Sheela-na-Gigs are very evocative symbols of the feminine in old Irish culture and their prominent positions in medieval churches and castles attests to the importance of the female in Irish society. As modern Ireland strives for equality in all aspects of life this map can help us all to understand the important place women have traditionally held within our culture and society.”

There are probably more Sheelas that haven’t been officially documented yet. The Heritage Council is hoping to add to the layer with new information and asks that members of the public contact them if they know of any Sheela-na-Gigs that are not yet marked on the map.

As the name suggests, Heritage Maps is a collection of culture-related data sets marked on a map of Ireland. You can select different layers to view on the map — shipwrecks, UNESCO World Heritage sites, burial grounds, walled towns, museums, protected architectural sites, and hundreds more — and create the mother of all heritage tours customized to your interests. There are more than 150,000 sites pinpointed in all of the layers, and the number increases all the time.

To view the new Sheela-na-Gig dataset, click on the Archaeology category in the Layer List and check the Sheela-na-Gig box. You’ll see the map populate with data points. Click on one of the points and then on the right arrow after the name for the full information to drop down, including a photo (just thumbnails, alas).

 

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