Archive for August, 2010

First pics and film from new Titanic survey

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The new expedition to fully map and record the wreck of the Titanic has had to repair to St. John’s, Newfoundland temporarily to avoid getting whupped by Hurricane Danielle. Inclement weather notwithstanding, the team has already captured impressive new 3DHD footage of various parts of the wreck.

Here’s the famous bow so goofily captured by James “King of the World” Cameron (in real life passengers weren’t allowed anywhere near the bow):

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Amazing, isn’t it? That footage was taken at 3820 meters under the sea. The 3DHD technology takes much sharper pictures even at murky depths, and although we don’t get to see the full impact like the team members did when they got to view the complete footage with 3D glasses, the colors and definition are astonishing.

The expedition website is already packed with new footage, pictures and a Flash-based map you can click and drag around to explore the wreck and debris field. Click on everything, seriously, because it’s all fascinating.

I think my favorite may be Captain Smith’s stateroom, because you can see his bathtub through the collapsed walls. When Titanic was first discovered in 1985, the Captain’s stateroom was in fairly solid condition. Over the past 25 years, corrosion has buckled the walls and is beginning to eat away at the roof.

Biodegredation is a major concern. Colonies of microorganisms have been actively gnoshing on Titanic’s iron, producing long ribbons of digested metal called rusticles (like icicles only made out of rust). It seems very likely at this point that the different floors in the stern of the ship, the part of the wreck with the greatest bacterial activity, will sooner or later fully collapse onto each other. The iron in the stern was put under the greatest amount of stress during the sinking of the Titanic which makes it more susceptible to rusticle formation now, and all food was stored there, which experts think may have acted as lure and sustenance for microbes.

That’s what makes this project so important. We’ll not only have a detail-rich big picture of Titanic’s current condition, but we’ll have a greater understanding of the wreck’s long-term prospects.

RMS Titanic’s Facebook page is another rich source of pictures and minute-to-minute information about the project.

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Titian painting damaged in Venice fire

Monday, August 30th, 2010

"David and Goliath", Titian, 1542-44Titian’s David and Goliath (1542-44) in Venice’s Basilica Santa Maria della Salute was damaged by water when firefighters soaked the roof while fighting a fire in the seminary next door. David and Goliath was displayed on the ceiling of the basilica’s sacristy along with 2 other works by Titian (Abraham and Isaac and Cain and Abel).

“I saw water dripping from the painting for an hour” after the fire at an adjacent construction site was put out late on Sunday, the head of Venice’s museum agency Vittorio Sgarbi told AFP, adding that he rushed to the scene after seeing the fire while dining at a nearby restaurant.

Sacristy ceiling water damageWorkers have erected scaffolding to inspect the damaged “David and Goliath” along with two other Titians that look down from the ceiling of Santa Maria della Salute’s vestry.

“The painting might have experienced some alteration, but nothing that can’t be restored,” said Sgarbi, a well-known art critic.

David and Goliath was restored 20 years ago. It’s that recent restoration work that is most likely to have been affected by the water. Restorers nowadays use “reversible” colors to ensure that they don’t fall into the trap of past restorations that ended up materially altering the original canvas. That makes them easy to remove in case they’ve made a mistake without needing to use any harsh solvents that might damage the original brushstrokes. That also makes them more susceptible to external elements like, oh, say, gallons of water from firefighter hoses, but by design they’re easy to repair so that’s why Sgarbi doesn’t sound too upset.

There are several other Titian paintings in the vestry of the basilica (8 tondi of the Doctors of the Church and the Evangelists) which may have been damaged when the sprinkler system went off in response to the fire next door. Any damage that may have occurred isn’t immediately obvious. They will all be carefully examined and repaired as necessary.

Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health) was built in 1631 as a votive offering to the Virgin Mary, considered the protector of the Venetian Republic, to end the devastating plague of 1630.

Santa Maria della Salute

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Elsa Schiaparelli and Sunday galleries

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

The Lobster DressSo I got on one of my obsession kicks today, this time about the history of couture fashion. I spent a good 6 hours reading about the genius of Elsa Schiaparelli, whom I knew for her invention of shocking pink (yes, she actually invented a color, at least when it comes to couture) and for her amazing collaborations with surrealist artists which resulted in masterpieces like the Lobster Dress (Salvador Dalí painted that lobster onto the fabric), the Skeleton Dress (it caused a scandal when it debuted in 1938) and the Shoe Hat.

The Skeleton DressWhat I didn’t know is that she invented so many other things that we now take so much for granted that we don’t even think of them as having been invented, really. Things introduced to the world of high fashion by Elsa Schiaparelli include square shoulders combined with nipped-in waistlines, wacky prints, graphic patterned sweaters, jackets to wear with evening gowns, the long runway walked by tall, thin models, ready-to-wear boutiques for couturiers, sportswear mix-and-match separates, colored zippers, the wrap dress, the skort, man-made fabrics and the wedge heel.

Shoe Hat with shocking pink heelSchiaparelli’s couture house closed in 1954. She wasn’t able to roll with the post-war times despite having been at her most brilliant in the interwar period. That same year saw the rebirth of the signature line of her greatest rival, Coco Chanel. Chanel, who had kept under the radar since her couture house closed after the German occupation of France (she had been a Nazi officer’s mistress and was not exactly beloved in France after the war despite her own innovations and contributions to French fashion), would come to eclipse Schiaparelli in popular reputation, although not among couturiers, many of whom have borrowed liberally from Elsa’s artistic genius over the decades.

If you’re at all interested in fashion history, or even just like looking at purty dresses, take a romp through these galleries: the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2004 exhibit, “Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli,” and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s awesome interactive timeline of the Golden Age of couture, which does an excellent job showing the links between famous couturiers, so many of whom started as cutters and pattern-makers under other famous couturiers.

ETA: Rowan pointed me to this article on a new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the history of European fashion from 1700 to 1915. It opens on October 2nd and runs until March 6th. Meanwhile, here’s a photo gallery of some of the gloriousness. I’m completely in love with this dress from England, around 1885.

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MEGA database to track Jordan archaeological sites

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

MEGA-Jordan screencapThe Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles has created a new web-based tracking system for archaeological sites in Jordan. Financed in part by the World Monuments Fund and with extensive support from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the million dollar project has been in the works for 3 years and will be available for authorized users starting in September.

Awesomely named MEGA — Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities — the database uses Google Earth satellite images and archaeologist field reports to catalogue over 10,000 ancient sites in Jordan. Some of the information was available in a local Jordanian database, but it wasn’t web-based and was clunky to browse and update. Now anybody in the know can easily record any news about a site’s condition, from encroaching development, looters, environmental threats, whatever is relevant.

Obviously real-time updates are not going to stop someone from looting a site, but it will help authorities track problems almost as soon as they happen, and get a better idea of how to apportion protection and conservation resources.

It was the devastation of Iraq’s archaeological sites in the wake of the US invasion that actually inspired this project. The looting of the National Museum in Baghdad got much of the attention at the time, but the Getty thought they could devise a database to help authorities cope with the archaeological sites being destroyed by looters. Unfortunately, the chaos in the country over the next few years kept the Getty from being able to work with local Iraqi experts, so the project never got off the ground.

“The idea of shipping a couple of big computers to Iraq and hoping that they would get there and that it would all work just seemed too crazy,” said Alison Dalgity, a senior project manager at the Getty who helped develop MEGA.

And so the institute accepted an invitation from Jordan to develop the system there first, a plan that coincided with a sea change in Web-based mapping tools and the rise of open-source software, meaning that the system could exist on the Web and be built and updated cheaply.

It’s not even live yet, but already Jordanian authorities are so delighted with the database that they’re considering opening it to everyone, not just authorized experts but tourist schmoes like the rest of us. Jordan isn’t exactly comfortable with open information sharing when it comes to official government data, so it says a lot that they’re seriously considering upending their customary attitude towards transparency to share the wealth of their archaeological sites.

Jordan’s experience with MEGA might be something of a template for Iraq and other antiquities-rich countries. Change the Google settings and the names, and then it’s just a matter of data entry.

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Original Kermit donated to Smithsonian

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Jim Henson and Kermit, 1955Jim Henson’s widow Jane has donated the original Kermit the Frog to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Along with Kermit, Jane Henson also gave the museum the original Sam, from the 1955 TV show Sam and Friends where Kermit first appeared, Henson’s first puppet, Pierre the French Rat, what appears to be a Ralph, a voracious purple skull named Yorick and Mushmellon, early concepts of what would become Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch respectively, plus 3 other characters from the dawn of the muppet era.

They were handed to the museum in a ceremony on Wednesday. (Fun fact: Willard Scott was in attendance. Apparently he was a weatherman and children’s host on WRC-TV in 1955, the Washington, D.C., station where Sam and Friends debuted. He also played Bozo the Clown. I did not know that.)

Jane Henson said the original characters provided five minutes of fun each night after the local news where they mostly mimed to popular music.

Original Kermit, Ralph and Sam donated to Smithsonian“I think people realized that if you put Kermit’s face up there, it was just as powerful – we were mostly just doing it to entertain ourselves,” she said.

The Smithsonian already has a familiar Kermit the Frog puppet made famous on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

But the original Kermit looked more like a lizard, made with ping-pong ball eyes and green felt from an old coat thrown out by Henson’s mother.

The first Kermit should be on display with his more recent brethren at the Smithsonian in November.

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2,000-year-old wall paintings revealed in Petra

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

British conservation specialists from the Courtauld Institute in London have removed centuries of soot, grease, grime and graffiti from Hellenistic-style paintings on the wall of a cave in the canyon of Siq al-Barid in Beidha, about 3 miles away from the main city of Petra.

They’re at least 2,000 years old and may have been painted earlier. Very few examples of Hellenistic painting have survived, and what’s left is mainly fragments. We have very little Nabatean art at all, so finding such extensive pieces with intact color and detail under the layers of filth is remarkable.

At the instigation of the Petra National Trust (PNT), conservation experts Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede restored the paintings to life. The work took three years, and was completed only last week. “The paintings were a real mess,” Rickerby said.

He described what has emerged from the blackened layers as “really exceptional and staggeringly beautiful, with an artistic and technical quality that’s quite unlike anything else”.

Three different vines, grape, ivy and bindweed – all associated with Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine – have been identified, while the birds include a demoiselle crane and a Palestine sunbird with luscious colours. The scenes are populated by putti-like figures, one winged child playing a flute while seated in a vine-scroll, others picking fruit and fighting off birds pecking at the grapes. The paintings are exceptional in their sophistication, extensive palette and luxurious materials, including gold leaf.

Petra, in what is now Jordan, was the epicenter of an immense trade network linking East and West. As traders in everything from Indian spices to Levant aromatics, Nabatean culture was influenced by its trading partners, hence the Hellenstic style of these paintings which decorate the dining room, main chamber and a smaller recess of what appears to have been a rock-carved spa for the elite.

The Nabateans were experts in water control; a marked advantage, you can imagine, in the middle of a desert. Nabateans took advantage of the canyon flash flooding, channeling it with a system of dams and conduits, creating an artificial oasis that would last for hundreds of years until an earthquake in the 4th century A.D.

Hellenistic painting, before and after restoration

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Stolen Nimrud earrings returned to Iraq

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

The 3,000-year-old neo-Assyrian gold earrings stolen from Iraq in the post-invasion chaos and almost sold by Christie’s 2 years ago have been returned to Iraq.

Christie’s claimed when they put up for sale that they were bought in 1969 and “similar” to the 8 identical pairs of elaborate gold earrings found in 1988 in the royal tombs at Nimrud, the ancient capital of Assyria. Iraqi officials spotted them in the catalogue and reported them to Interpol, stopping the sale.

Donny George, the former director of the Iraq Museum who was on the Nimrud excavation and who personally photographed the treasures, recognized the earrings as from Nimrud. He pointed out that the gold work at Nimrud was exceptional and unique, that there was no such thing as a “similar” piece.

Neo-Assyrian gold earringsThe earrings were among the 613 items of jewellery and funeral ornaments that make up the Treasure, found in 1988 in two previously unexplored burial chambers, belonging to a ninth-century BC queen and princess, in the ancient city of Nimrud.

Sent to the central bank at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Treasure has hardly ever been on show. But it was once described by an American investigator seeking to recover lost Iraqi artefacts as making the tomb of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun “look like Walmart”.

The treasure remained in the vault of the central for 20 years, surviving the 1990 Gulf War, depredations of Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay (he helped himself to almost a billion dollars in cash plus hundreds of gold bars from the bank), Shock and Awe, looters trying to break into it with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, and a major flood. A team of Iraqi, US and British archaeologists, plus an awesome reservist Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos who in civilian life is a New York prosecutor with a classics degree along with his legal one, were able to rescue the Nimrud treasure from the flood.

At the time they thought it was fully accounted for, but somewhere between the summer of 2003 and winter of 2008, those earrings migrated out of Iraq into Christie’s hot little ask-no-questions hands. Even now Christie’s refuses to say who the seller was or even comment on the story at all. New York Customs enforcement will only say that no legal action has been taken.

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Taiwan craftsman saving traditional lead type

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Taiwan Traditional TypeChang Chieh-kuan, a Taiwan printer, is dedicating to keeping the ancient art of Chinese character movable lead type alive in the digital era. He owns one of the only remaining foundries that still casts lead type from copper molds for thousands of Chinese characters.

Because there is no alphabet in Chinese, putting together all the characters to print even a few words is hugely time-consuming, never mind the 4000 or so characters that make up the average novel. Chang’s Ri Xing Type Foundry has 2 million individual pieces of lead type.

Handwritten Chinese, using brush and paper, is considered an art form and an indicator of its practitioner’s scholarship and aesthetic sensibility.

In communist China, many characters have been replaced by simplified forms to promote literacy, but purists say they lack the heft and balance of the originals.

Taiwan, an island of 23 million people 160 kilometers (100 miles) off the Chinese coast, still uses the traditional versions, regarding them as the heart and soul of Chinese culture. The older characters are also in use in Hong Kong, though no movable-type foundries exist there.

And everywhere, word processing is threatening to make the old skills extinct.

Chang is dedicated to preserving this cultural and historical asset, no matter how obsolete it may seem. Movable type was invented in China, after all, in 1040 A.D., a full 400 years before Gutenberg developed the printing press in the West. Its inventor, Bi Sheng, used wood type, but that was soon abandoned in favor of clay which had no grain nor warping problems after being soaked in ink. Metal type took another 200 years to appear, first in Korea then throughout the Mongol Chinese empire.

When Chang’s uncle started Ri Xing Type Foundry in 1969, there were 5000 print shops in Taipei. Now there are only 30 of them left, and Chang’s is the only remaining foundry.

To keep this thousand-year-old tradition alive, Chang has had to sell his family home, and since the print shop hasn’t actually turned a profit in 10 years, he created a museum of movable type where people can buy lead characters as novelties. They look totally cool. He needs to get a website up because I bet people from all over the world would buy them for the coolness alone. It would be wonderful to see a dying traditional craft benefit from the Chinese character trend so overused in tattoo art.

Visitors browse type casts at Ri Xing Type Foundry

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19th c. silk trade guild banners for sale

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association in Portland, Maine, is selling its exquisite collection of early 19th century silk guild banners. Trade associations used to promote their wares by carrying painted silk banners describing their art with clever puns and beautiful images during town parades. Everyone from freemasons to blacksmiths to hatters made these kinds of banners.

The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association was created in 1815 to help train apprentices, and has kept 17 of these beautiful pieces of labour history from the 1830s. Sadly, they have an 1850s building in dire need of repair, plus a bunch of programs that need the funding. Since they don’t have the money to keep the banners in a secure, properly controlled environment for their conservation, they’ve decided to put them up for auction.

You can browse the catalogue to see all 17 of them; the banners start at lot 2114. (Not that the rest of the lots aren’t worth browsing. This little auction house in Maine has some awesome pieces for sale, ranging from lovely local folk art to Aubusson tapestries.)

There has been some controversy over the sale. Nobody wants to see these treasures of Maine labour history dispersed into private collections. The auction house is being surprisingly accommodating, thankfully, so there’s a chance the banners might remain in state in a museum that can properly house them.

Buyers interested in the whole collection, rather than single lots, can make presale offers, Mr. Julia said; he will allow the winning bidder to pay off the bill over time rather than upfront. Estimates range from $2,000 for the tailors’ banner with a wreath around the phrase “Think and Act” to $30,000 for the shipbuilders’ painting of a three-mast vessel captioned “By Commerce We Live.”

Steve Bromage, the assistant director of the Maine Historical Society in Portland, wrote in an e-mail that “a consortium of Maine museums is working together to raise funds to participate in the auction.”

Given the “significant historic value of these banners,” he wrote, there is “a strong desire to keep them in Maine and accessible to the public.”

Here are a few of my favorites, but I really could have posted them all because I am completely in love with them. All my latent syndicalism has come gushing forth in a great geyser of adoration for these gorgeous banners.

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Van Gogh ‘Poppy Flowers’ stolen from Egypt museum

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

'Poppy Flowers' by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887Brazen thievery seems to be a theme this weekend. A painting by Van Gogh knows as Poppy Flowers or Vase with Flowers was stolen Saturday from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo. Thieves cut it out of the frame with box cutters.

The work, measuring 30cm by 30cm (1ft by 1ft), depicts yellow and red flowers and resembles a scene painted by the French artist Adolphe Monticelli, whose work deeply affected the young Vincent Van Gogh. The Monticelli painting also is part of the Khalil collection.

Van Gogh is believed to have been painted the canvas in 1887, three years before his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Egypt’s minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, mistakenly announced yesterday that suspects had been apprehended at the airport and the painting secured, but he retracted that claim today stating he had been given false information. The painting is still at large, and authorities are on red alert to find the $50 million masterpiece before it skips town.

This isn’t the first time Poppy Flowers has been stolen from the Khalil Museum. The last time was in 1978. It was found 2 years later in Kuwait under circumstances never fully explained. There was talk at the time that the painting might have been copied during its 2-year sabbatical, and even whispers that what the museum got back was one of those copies, not the original Van Gogh.

The second theft might put those rumors to rest, at any rate, since the looters obviously thought it was the real deal. Anyway the Khalil has a lot bigger fish to fry now. Prosecutor general Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud puts the blame for this theft squarely on the museum’s security system, which is shockingly lax. None of the alarms in the entire museum are currently functional, and only 7 of the 43 surveillance cameras are working. Nor are there sufficient security guards to do thorough rounds at closing time.

Mahmoud warned the Khalil to get their act together last year when 9 paintings were stolen from the Mohammed Ali Museum in Cairo, which had similarly crappy security, but obviously that didn’t happen. (All 9 of those paintings were found dumped outside 10 days later.) The prosecutor isn’t playing this time. Mahmoud has barred 15 Egyptian officials, including the director of the Khalil museum and the head of the fine arts department at the Ministry of Culture, from leaving the country until the investigation is complete.

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