Reconsidering Degas’ ballerinas

As part of our ongoing CPD programme, I recently completed an online refresher course on child sexual exploitation; the different grooming models, how to spot the signs, where to go for guidance, and so on. It’s all as horrible as you’d expect.

Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace) UK
Pace is the lead national charity working with parents and carers of exploited children.

And then, coincidentally, I spotted this article on the paintings and sculptures of ballerinas by Edgar Degas.

La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans
I’ve seen many representations of ballet dancers in Degas’ work over the years, but this time around was different because I had read Julia Wolkoff’s The Sordid Truth behind Degas’s Ballet Dancers last year.

The formerly upright ballet had taken on the role of unseemly cabaret; in Paris, its success was almost entirely predicated on lecherous social contracts. Sex work was a part of a ballerina’s reality, and the city’s grand opera house, the Palais Garnier, was designed with this in mind. A luxuriously appointed room located behind the stage, called the foyer de la danse, was a place where the dancers would warm up before performances. But it also served as a kind of men’s club, where abonnés — wealthy male subscribers to the opera — could conduct business, socialize, and proposition the ballerinas.

Sounds a little like child sexual exploitation to me. As well as prompting you to look at the sculpture of the little fourteen-year-old dancer with fresh eyes, he asks you to reconsider this painting, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage.

reconsidering-degas-ballerinas

What might look at first glance like a depiction of the beauty of dance takes on a more sinister nature when you notice the men on the right side of the painting, perhaps a pair of wealthy subscribers getting a special preview of that night’s ballet and their choice of ballerinas. You might never look at another of Degas’ ballet paintings the same way again.

Painting (by) numbers

Jason Kottke shares with us the work of Roman Opalka, evidently a man of focus and determination.

Painting infinity
In 1965, French-born Polish painter Roman Opalka began work on his series of paintings OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞. Starting in the top-left corner of a canvas, he painted the number “1”, then “2”, then “3”, and so on, continuing until the canvas was full of consecutive whole numbers. At the top of the next canvas, he picked up where he’d left off, and then just kept going from canvas to canvas. By 1970, Opalka abandoned working on anything else and devoted himself solely to filling canvases with numbers.

painting-by-numbers-1

Roman Opalka’s numerical destiny
He understood his work as the culmination of a lifetime of painting when he famously proclaimed. “It’s important that my last Detail should not be finished by me, but my life.”

He pursued this culmination on a daily basis, eight hours a day, until the process of painting led him to “white/white” — that is, white numbers on a canvas with a background painted white, the same as the numbers. After three years (1968, possibly 1969), Opalka began to add 1% white pigment to the black background. Gradually, over time, as more paintings were painted, the black surface would become gray. As he continued to count and to paint five, six, and seven digit numbers, he discreetly added 1% white to each canvas, thus making the surfaces appear increasingly lighter. In the late 1970s he declared that the background of his canvases would eventually appear white, the same white used to paint the numerals that would finally dissolve into the surface, embody the surface. Ultimately, there would be no distinction between the white numerals and the white surface; they would culminate as a form of blankness, possibly transcendent, as the numerals grew invisible within the prospect of infinity, the Samadhi or highest level of meditation.

Not to be confused with:

From Warhol to minimalism: how painting by numbers revolutionised art
It took a genius to see the genius of Dan Robbins, the inventor of painting-by-numbers who has died aged 93. For art critics, painting-by-numbers was, and is, a byword for robotic repetition and unoriginality – and that was exactly what Andy Warhol adored about it. In 1962, when he was searching for a mechanical artistic process, he painted a series of homages to Robbins. His Do it Yourself paintings mimic painting-by-numbers landscapes, with blocky areas of flat colour guided by a grid of numbers visible through the paint.

Return of a lost love

From The Art Newspaper, news of a cupid’s return.

Hidden Cupid resurfaces in one of Vermeer’s best-known works after two and a half centuries
On the original canvas, the Cupid “picture within a picture” hung on the wall behind the letter-reading girl. It was detected 40 years ago by x-ray, but scholars had always assumed that Vermeer himself painted over it, says Uta Neidhardt, the senior conservator at Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie. The decision to restore Cupid to the work was taken after recent laboratory tests established beyond doubt that the figure was overpainted decades after Vermeer completed it.

“There was even a layer of dirt above the original varnish on the Cupid, showing the painting had been in its original state for decades,” Neidhardt says. The overpainting was also slightly darker than the colour used by Vermeer in the background of his work, because the later artist needed to compensate for the darkening varnish on the original, she says.

“This is the most sensational experience of my career,” she says. “It makes it a different painting.”

return-of-a-lost-love

As well as restoring the painting, quite a number of art theory re-writes are required now, I think.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer
We know from x-rays images that on the background wall, just above and to the right of the young woman, Vermeer had included a large-scale ebony-framed painting of Cupid (the same one that appears in A Lady Standing at a Virginal). It was later painted it out by the artist himself.

The Cupid would have made it clear that the content of the young woman’s letter was of an amorous nature.

return-of-a-lost-love-1

A great start

A wonderful, rambling interview in The Art Newspaper with Damien Hirst. As well as a discussion on his art and influences, it was nice to hear him talk of the old days in Leeds.

(Did I mention I went to the same art college he did, and did the same foundation course, albeit a few years after?)

Blossoming artist: Damien Hirst on returning to the studio, fluorescent florals and the ‘muppets’ in government
How formative was your experience of studying art at school and at art college?

I did a foundation course, which was the greatest thing. I think everybody should do one, whether you become an artist or not. I remember there was someone who was 60 on the course; I went straight from school, almost. It was only a year but it just blows your mind. There’s older people, younger people—a big mix—and people who were doing everything: graphic designers, fashion designers, textiles. It was just really brilliant. If you ended up being a bank manager, I think it would be great to have done a foundation course.

I’m just incredibly lucky to be healthy, to have an arena where whether people like it or don’t like it, it’s considered. Leeds University has a library which is just art; I remember being in there looking at all the books thinking that I had to read everything before I can begin. And then I thought I’d never ever get a book with my name on it. But I should try anyway; it would be amazing to have a book with your name on it on the shelves.

Faith in fakes

Everything went according to plan, the art thieves made off with an incredibly valuable Brueghel. Only it wasn’t.

Italian police reveal ‘€3m painting’ stolen from church was a copy
The town’s mayor, Daniele Montebello, was among the few people privy to the subterfuge, and had to keep up the pretence in the hours after the heist, telling journalists that losing the painting was “a hard blow for the community”.

“Rumours were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras,” Montebello said on Wednesday night. “I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn’t the original but kept up the secret.”

It seems nobody’s updated ArtNet News yet, even though they’re referencing this Guardian article.

Thieves just used a hammer to steal a $3.4 million Pieter Bruegel the Younger painting from a remote Italian church
Using a hammer to break the case, the thieves lifted the picture—worth an estimated $3.4 million, according to press reports—and made off in Peugeot car. Police believe two people were involved in the heist. They are now are investigating CCTV footage from around the town and the province for clues.

Miró Miró on the wall

New York’s Museum of Modern Art has a Miró exhibition on currently.

Joan Miró: Birth of the World
Drawn from MoMA’s unrivaled collection of Miró’s work, augmented by several key loans, this exhibition situates The Birth of the World in relation to other major works by the artist. It presents some 60 paintings, works on paper, prints, illustrated books, and objects—made primarily between 1920, the year of Miró’s first, catalytic trip to Paris, and the early 1950s, when his unique visual language became internationally renowned—to shed new light on the development of his poetic process and pictorial universe.

A little too far for me to visit, though they have a great set of images of the exhibition. (My favourites of his aren’t to be found, however.)

miro-in-new-york-1

miro-in-new-york-2

miro-in-new-york-3

Here’s a New Yorker article about the exhibition and the painting that gave the show its name.

Joan Miró’s modernism for everybody
The moma show focusses on that apotheosis with its eponymous star attraction. Miró painted “The Birth of the World” in 1925, while in the company, and under the spell, of the circle of Surrealist poets and artists around André Breton, who called Miró “the most Surrealist of us all.” It presents drifting pictographic elements—a black triangle, a red disk, a white disk, an odd black hook shape, and some skittery lines—on an amorphous ground of thinned grayish paint that is loosely brushed or poured and that soaks here and there into the unevenly primed canvas. The painting yields a sensation of indeterminate depth and expansiveness. It’s large—more than eight feet high by more than six feet wide—but feels larger: cosmic. You don’t so much look at it as fall into it. There had never been anything quite like it in painting, and it stood far apart from the formally conservative, lurid fantasizing of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and other Surrealist painters.

Reading about Miro made me think of Calder and his mobiles, so I was pleased to see the article subsequently go off in that direction.

I remember being a little confused by the relative obloquy, among art-world cognoscenti, of a related and, to my naïve eye, equally wonderful artist: Alexander Calder, whose mobiles had taken Miró’s influence to literal heights, with variations on the Catalan’s repertoire of catchy, nature-allusive forms suspended in air. But I quickly absorbed a message that I must not take Calder seriously. […]

Miró now squares up with Calder as an entertainer allergic to portentousness and even, each in his own way, anti-modern, given to timeless, simple pleasures of recalled childhood and artisanal tinkering. Miró is fun. He earns and will keep his place in our hearts, rather exactly like Calder, with abounding charm.

Joan Miró: Birth of the World | MoMA exhibition

Look again

I’ve got the art degree, I know all about the male gaze, but here’s something I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not really considered before.

How black women were whitewashed by art
All it takes is a few minutes of searching ‘Queen of Sheba painting’ on Google Images to see a litany of reclining, exoticised white women glancing languorously either at the viewer or King Solomon. There were once some depictions of the Queen of Sheba as dark-skinned, but the Renaissance saw her whitewashing and sexualisation on a grand scale. For Ohajuru it jars with earlier depictions of her, such as that seen at the altarpiece of Klosterneuburg in Austria, which portrays her visiting the king next to an image of the Adoration of the Magi. “She was used as a prefiguration, a foreteller, a prophesiser, that a king would visit the baby Jesus, just as a queen visited Solomon.” By the 18th Century she is no longer a queen meeting a king to have a healthy debate – she is an idolatrous seductress.

look-again-1

Of blackness and ‘beauty’
Unlike his predecessor, Bazille does not capture a black woman as a servant to a naked, white prostitute as Manet does in his famous Olympia painting, but rather as a human being who exists outside of deference to a white woman. Peonies, symbols of riches, honor, and prosperity, surround her. She extends one flower out toward the frame as if a potential patron has approached her station. Like Manet’s black model Laure, she wears a headscarf and white outfit, but this peony-possessing woman’s features are much more defined. One cannot lose the connection of her curved lips from top to bottom, or the shape of her eyebrows. In contrast, Olympia, which many art historians call a modernist update to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), has inspired much study of Victorine Meurent, the naked white model who is staring directly at the spectator, instead of her servant Laure, whose history is sparsely documented. Her last name is not on record. It is another example of how a black model’s humanity is not given the same recognition as that of her white female counterpart.

look-again-2

The right time of day

Rushing to leave for work in the dark, fighting through the traffic coming home in the dark — dawn and dusk can be a little depressing in these winter months. But perhaps I’m looking at it all wrong. Thankfully, artist Chloe Wilson is here to show us the beauty and stillness of these times of day.

Skyscapes
This body of work is inspired by the particular quality of light that the sky possesses during the transition from day to night. I find these brief, daily moments interesting because of how they precipitate both perception and introspection. … I collect reference photos from my daily commute and then transcribe these moments into paint.

right-time-of-day-1

right-time-of-day-2

right-time-of-day-3

right-time-of-day-4

(Via)

I love the atmosphere she’s captured here, all very calming. Those telegraph wires remind me of Robert Crumb’s drawings.

R. Crumb’s snapshots: Source material of the legendary comic artist
What his focus on such unsightly minutia in this anthology suggests, is that as outlandish, garish, or other-worldly as Crumb’s cartoons get, their lasting affect comes from always being firmly grounded to the banal referents of our real world.

“People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing,” he says, “The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.”

right-crumb-1

right-crumb-2

Charting Van Gogh’s shifting colours

Taking a break from their AI coverage, Artnome take us on an interesting journey through Van Gogh’s shifting colour schemes, busting a couple of myths as they go.

New data shows why Van Gogh changed his color palette
We were not convinced by the medical reasoning behind the shift in Van Gogh’s color palette and we could not think of any French Impressionists that painted with colors nearly as bold as Van Gogh, so we decided to take a look at some other possibilities.

Van Gogh was a restless soul and moved around quite a bit. He also spent a lot of time painting outdoors, especially in his later years. As someone who famously struggled with mood swings, we thought location, and more importantly, weather patterns may have impacted his use of color.

To test this, we created composite images averaging every painting Van Gogh created from each of the major locations he worked from and compared them to weather patterns from those regions. We think the results are quite remarkable.

Using data and technology like this is a fascinating way to learn more about works of art and the hidden narratives behind them.

The lost painting, the Saudi prince and the US president

Well, the ongoing mystery of Da Vinci‘s Salvator Mundi is going in a direction I hadn’t imagined.

Salvator Mundi
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have ‘lost’ the world’s most expensive painting. The Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, Salvator Mundi, may hold the key to the Trump-Russia investigation. And, the artwork itself could be evidence of collusion.

Curiously, when I last mentioned this painting here, I compared it to a painting currently in the White House. I never would have thought that Salvator Mundi and Trump would go on to be more directly connected like this.

There can be no certainty when the game is subterfuge, and we need to wait for Mueller’s final report before we reach any conclusions, but if Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi proves to be a key which helps unlock Trump-Russia, “Savior of the World” could prove to be nothing short of prophetic.

Happy birthday, Paul Klee

Today would have been Paul Klee’s 139th birthday. Google have marked the occasion with a Doodle.

Google Doodle celebrates colors of artist Paul Klee
To celebrate Klee’s 139th birthday Tuesday, Google is paying homage to the artist’s sometimes dry and sometimes child-like approach with a Doodle reminiscent of Klee’s Rote Brücke (Red Bridge) — a 1928 painting that uses a pattern of shapes and contrasting yet harmonious hues to represent the rooftops and arches of a European city. The painting reflects Klee’s deep exploration of color theory — the mixing of colors and the visual effects of specific color combination.

happy-birthday-paul-klee-1

Here’s a link to that Red Bridge painting. Yes, the Doodle mimics the shapes well, but it’s so hard to properly replicate the textures.

Paul Klee: 5 things you should know about the renegade German-Swiss painter
His legacy still permeates the art world. “The legacy of Klee is everywhere,” reads a New York Times headline from 1987. “The unemphatic art of Paul Klee has entered the universal language not only of fine art but of advertising, graphic design, high-quality cartooning and communications in general,” the newspaper wrote.

Senecio could be regarded as his most familiar work, but let’s not overlook paintings like this one.

happy-birthday-paul-klee-2

Paul Klee – most important art – Highways and Byways
Klee visited Egypt in 1928, inspired by the North African country to create brightly colored abstract works. Yet, like many of his others, this painting is not quite fully divorced from its real world subject. Narrow blue rectangles at the top of the canvas suggest the sky, while uneven rectangles and trapezoids create paths leading one’s eye from the bottom of the page to the elevated horizon. Broad trapezoids painted pale hues are arranged down the center of the canvas to suggest a main road. Thus Klee manipulates color, shape, and line to create a sense of real-world depth and movement.

It reminds me a little of Monet’s Water Lilies, in that they hit you first in a forceful, abstract way, but then shortly their depth of field opens up to show you a much larger painting.

I’m not sure what colour it’s really supposed to be, though.

happy-birthday-paul-klee-3

Here’s looking at you

A very interesting essay in the Paris Review about the self, the self portrait, selfies and celebrity.

Toward a more radical selfie
But I don’t mean to bemoan social media (boring, it’s been done, everyone’s worried but no one will change). Really, I want to use that labyrinth to try to find a route back to an entirely different type of self-portraiture, one that offers an alternative (and more positive) interconnection between character, work, and the female subject.

heres-looking-at-you-1

And by going all the way back to 1771, the author—the actor and filmmaker, India Ennenga—does indeed find that alternative.

Watching paint fly

In a manner reminiscent of Loving Vincent, Em Cooper has created a wonderful short animation for a Berghaus ad campaign.

Em Cooper is a live-action filmmaker working with oil paint
“I was actually on a walk in Cornwall when the detail of how I would make it came into my mind. I wanted every transformation to feel natural and effortless — the transitions working like silent slippages of paint with the brushstrokes loosening just a touch and then reforming quietly into the next moment. It is painstaking and labour-intensive work: I hand paint every single frame individually, but the results are magical, and I think viewers can sense the time and effort that has gone into it.”

Time to get out

watching-paint-fly-2

watching-paint-fly-3

Paintings, ridiculous and sublime

The art world is such a strange place.

Artist ‘astounded’ to see his Trump painting hung in the White House
Thomas knew Trump had received the painting as a gift – from a Republican congressman who was already a fan of the artist – because the president had recently called to congratulate him. But he only found out the painting had been hung in the White House – close to the Oval Office – when it popped up as a backdrop during a TV interview broadcast on Sunday evening.

paintings-sublime-ridiculous-1

We’re ‘astounded’ too – why would anyone paint such a horrible thing, even with its incredibly subtle feminist message? Where are the Old Masters when you need them?

Ah, here’s one. I think. Remember that incredibly expensive Da Vinci painting I mentioned earlier, the one with its own instagram account? Well, it looks a little different now to when it was sold for nearly half a billion dollars.

The Da Vinci mystery: why is his $450m masterpiece really being kept under wraps?
It was Martin Clayton, curator of Leonardo’s drawings at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, who suggested I check out Campbell’s post and drew my attention to the startling differences between the painting after it was cleaned and its appearance now. “Photographs seem to show that, before it was touched up, it was all Leonardo,” he says. “They show the painting mid-restoration – and it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face.” Clayton is not questioning the painting’s authenticity. He’s suggesting that a very pure Leonardo has been partly “obscured”.

paintings-sublime-ridiculous-3

This is how it was described in 2011. Not too flatteringly.

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery – the greatest show of the year?
For a long time it was assumed that Leonardo had painted a Saviour of the World, or Salvator Mundi, but that the painting was lost, and all that survived were later engravings and dubious copies, including the newly restored head of Christ here. New research published this summer has now identified this as an authentic Leonardo. Or at least some of it. Maybe. What a difficult painting this is to like, let alone to be affected by. Jesus has the glazed look of someone stoned. You can imagine the raised fingers holding a spliff. Once imagined, the image won’t go away.

That Guardian article links to this one from the Mail.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Is long-lost £120m Salvator Mundi painting authentic?
A person close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York who asked not to be identified said: ‘The painting was forgotten for years. When it turned up at auction, Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble. It had been heavily overpainted, which makes it look like a copy. It was a wreck, dark and gloomy. It had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better. Once a restorer put artificial resin on it, which had turned grey and had to be removed painstakingly. When they took off the overpaint, what was revealed was the original paint. You saw incredibly delicate painting. All agree it was painted by Leonardo.’

I hate linking to the Mail, but I felt I must because of these two images on that article. What a journey that painting’s been on.

paintings-sublime-ridiculous-2

Art and AI #3

A very interesting follow-up to that story about the first artwork by an AI to be auctioned. It seems the humans behind the AI, Hugo Caselles-Dupré and the Obvious team, have had to face some considerable criticism.

The AI art at Christie’s is not what you think
Hugo Caselles-Dupré, the technical lead at Obvious, shared with me: “I’ve got to be honest with you, we have totally lost control of how the press talks about us. We are in the middle of a storm and lots of false information is released with our name on it. In fact, we are really depressed about it, because we saw that the whole community of AI art now hates us because of that. At the beginning, we just wanted to create this fun project because we love machine learning.” […]

Early on Obvious made the claim that “creativity isn’t only for humans,” implying that the machine is autonomously creating their artwork. While many articles have run with this storyline, one even crediting robots, it is not what most AI artists and AI experts in general believe to be true. Most would say that AI is augmenting artists at the moment and the description in the news is greatly exaggerated. […]

In fact, when pressed, Hugo admitted to me in our interview that this was just “clumsy communication” they made in the beginning when they didn’t think anyone was actually paying attention. […]

As we saw with Salvator Mundi last year and with the Banksy last week, the most prestigious auction houses, like museums, have the ability to elevate art and increase its value by putting it into the spotlight, shaping not only the narrative of the work, but also the narrative of art history.

art-and-ai-3-2

Amateur art thieves

I’m not really one for true crime stories, but this one’s too strange to pass by.

The great Rikers Island art heist
For forty years, an original Salvador Dalí painting went unnoticed inside New York City’s massive jail complex. Then a gang of thieves decided it might be worth something.

It’s a great story but I don’t think this one will get the Hollywood treatment. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here.

After the drill began and the jail’s lobby was deserted, the thieves got to work. One stood watch. Another slipped off the painting case’s locks. The third kept tabs on the fire drill’s progress. Within a few minutes, a replica of the Dalí hung in its place. The substitute was far from a perfect match, and the thief standing guard wasn’t convinced. “That looks ridiculous,” he said.

A few hours later, in the early morning, two prison guards stationed next to the jail’s lobby noticed that something about the painting was off. It seemed markedly smaller, and in place of its carved mahogany wood frame, a brown frame had been painted around the edge of the canvas. A fake.

They painted the frame onto the canvas? Turned out to be an inside job.

Banksy backfires?

At first glance it looks like our plucky artist-as-vigilante-hero puts one over on the avaricious art world.

Banksy auction stunt leaves art world in shreds
Banksy has played what could be one of the most audacious stunts in art history, arranging for one of his best-known works to self-destruct after being sold at auction for just over £1m. […] Shortly after the hammer came down on the item, however, the canvas began to pass through a shredder installed in the frame.

Banksy publishes video detailing auction stunt plan

But this comment further down the article from the founder of MyArtBroker.com puts a different spin on it.

“The auction result will only propel this further and given the media attention this stunt has received, the lucky buyer would see a great return on the £1.02m they paid last night.

“This is now part of art history in its shredded state and we’d estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50% to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2m plus.”

The house always wins.

Update 12/10/2018: I enjoyed reading this exploration into what Banksy and Sotherby’s were up to.

Myth busting Banksy
I believe that while Sotheby’s was likely not fully aware of what was going to happen, they had a suspicion that something was up and played along for the sake of theater. To minimize the disruption, they put the Banksy work last, but until the shredded work scrolled out the bottom of the frame, the exact nature of the prank was not clear to them. I suspect that Sotheby’s knowledge was limited to knowing something harmless was up that potentially could benefit them as a PR stunt.

It would be analogous to Banksy holding a giant sign with tape on it and Sotheby’s noticing this and graciously winking and turning around so it could be placed on their back. Sotheby’s then acted surprised when others pointed out that the sign read “kick me” and claimed to have been “Banksy’d” and then soaked up the press.

And this raised a smile too.

Please don’t shred your own Banksy print unless you want it to be worth £1
Unfortunately, this is a warning that has already been given but apparently ignored. On October 6th, online art auction platform MyArtBroker tweeted it had “a number of #Banksy print owners contact us today asking if they shred their artwork will it be worth more.” Two days later MyArtBroker claimed someone did just that — shredded a limited edition “Girl with Balloon” print in order to try and raise the value of the work.

Vibrant butterfly

Another great find from the Futility Closet — an incredible book, hiding within an ordinary one.

Subtext
To create his 1970 novel A Humument, British artist Tom Phillips began with W.H. Mallock’s forgotten 1892 novel A Human Document and drew, painted, and collaged over the pages, leaving a few words showing to tell a new, hitherto unrevealed story. For instance, the title arises from Phillips’ deletion of two central syllables in Mallock’s title, and the protagonist, Bill Toge, can appear only when the word “together” or “altogether” arises in Mallock’s original text.

The article points us to this amazing gallery of pages from the book. All I knew of Tom Phillips before reading this was that he collaborated with Peter Greenaway on A TV Dante, but you can certainly see some of that shared aesthetic here.

vibrant-butterfly-2

We’re also pointed to this review from the London Review of Books, for a more in-depth look at the ‘author’ and his ‘book’.

Double Act: Adam Smyth reviews ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips
He treats each page of Mallock’s novel in this way, effacing most of the text, generally by painting, occasionally by cutting, slicing, or even in one instance burning the page, to leave an alternative narrative. Phillips’s revealed story was in one sense always there in Mallock, just lost amid the torrent of other text. This is authorship as pruning, a process of erasure or cutting away that finds in the buttoned-up A Human Document a teeming world of humour, sex, sadness and art that would have baffled and shocked the conservative Mallock.

[…]

Phillips is a lover of games and chance and rules. With Brian Eno – his pupil at Ipswich Art School in the early 1960s – he invented ‘sound tennis’, striking a ball against five pianos with their workings exposed, and scoring according to the sounds produced. In A Humument, Phillips deploys what he calls ‘invited accident’: in the 1987 edition, coin tosses dictated which words should be struck out on page 99 of Mallock, until there were only two left standing: ‘something already’.

[…]

The reeling comic voice that Phillips finds buried inside Mallock – ‘on the philosophy mattress to-night My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after and Aristotle’s Ethics’ – frequently recalls other masters of strange, urgent sentences: Monty Python; Samuel Beckett; Chris Morris in Blue Jam; and perhaps most vividly of all, Vivian Stanshall in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. In fact, A Humument is a novel of quotation: not only in the sense that all of its words were written first by Mallock (although not, as Eric Morecambe said of the notes in his piano playing, necessarily in the right order); but also because Phillips pieces together Mallock’s words to produce other writers’ lines. So there is Donne and Shakespeare, but also lines from books that in 1892 had not yet been written. Versions of E.M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ (Howards End, 1910) pop up throughout: ‘merely connect’; ‘closely connect’; ‘oddly connect’; ‘My little muse was connect connect.’ Molly Bloom’s closing words in Ulysses (1922) fill A Humument’s penultimate page (‘And I said yes – yes, I will yes’); and Ezra Pound’s Make It New (1935) is in there too. Beckett is a constant near presence, including a version of the most famous lines from Worstward Ho (1983): ‘as years went on, you began to fail better.’ The temporality of the quotation is complex: Mallock (1892) is being made to quote Beckett (1983) by Phillips (in a 2012 edition of a book he began in 1966).

OK I’m getting dizzy now.

Can we call what Phillips is doing ‘writing’, or would some other term be better? What version of authorship or creativity is at work here? A Humument is a reminder that books are inevitably intertextual – they grow out of older texts – and that all writing involves selecting words from a finite pool: what appears to be a constraint, having to work within the walls of an existing novel, in fact dramatises a condition of literature.

Art and AI #2

More about computer science’s latest foray into the art world.

The first piece of AI-generated art to come to auction
As part of the ongoing dialogue over AI and art, Christie’s will become the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm.

art-and-ai-2-2

The portrait in its gilt frame depicts a portly gentleman, possibly French and — to judge by his dark frockcoat and plain white collar — a man of the church. The work appears unfinished: the facial features are somewhat indistinct and there are blank areas of canvas. Oddly, the whole composition is displaced slightly to the north-west. A label on the wall states that the sitter is a man named Edmond Belamy, but the giveaway clue as to the origins of the work is the artist’s signature at the bottom right. In cursive Gallic script it reads:

art-and-ai-2-3

This portrait, however, is not the product of a human mind. It was created by an artificial intelligence, an algorithm defined by that algebraic formula with its many parentheses.

It’s certainly a very interesting image — it reminds me a little of Francis Bacon’s popes — but the pedant in me would rather they stick with “created by an algorithm”, rather than generated by an artificial intelligence. We’re not there yet. It was the “product of a human mind”, albeit indirectly. Take that signature, for example. I refuse to believe that this artificial intelligence decided for itself to sign its work that way. Declaring the AI to be the artist, as opposed to the medium, is like saying Excel is the artist in this case:

Tatsuo Horiuchi, the 73-year old Excel spreadsheet artist
“I never used Excel at work but I saw other people making pretty graphs and thought, ‘I could probably draw with that,’” says 73-year old Tatsuo Horiuchi. About 13 years ago, shortly before retiring, Horiuchi decide he needed a new challenge in his life. So he bought a computer and began experimenting with Excel. “Graphics software is expensive but Excel comes pre-installed in most computers,” explained Horiuchi. “And it has more functions and is easier to use than [Microsoft] Paint.”

Those are amazing paintings, by the way. Colossal has more, as well as a link to an interview with Tatsuo. But anyway, here’s some more AI art.

This AI is bad at drawing but will try anyways
This bird is less, um, recognizable. When the GAN has to draw *anything* I ask for, there’s just too much to keep track of – the problem’s too broad, and the algorithm spreads itself too thin. It doesn’t just have trouble with birds. A GAN that’s been trained just on celebrity faces will tend to produce photorealistic portraits. But this one, however…

art-and-ai-2-4

In fact, it does a horrifying job with humans because it can never quite seem to get the number of orifices correct.

But it seems the human artists can still surprise us, so all’s well.

Holed up: man falls into art installation of 8ft hole painted black
If there were any doubt at all that Anish Kapoor’s work Descent into Limbo is a big hole with a 2.5-metre drop, and not a black circle painted on the floor, then it has been settled. An unnamed Italian man has discovered to his cost that the work is definitely a hole after apparently falling in it.

Nigel Farage’s £25,000 portrait failed to attract a single bid at prestigious art show
The former Ukip leader has been a dealt a blow after the work, by painter David Griffiths, raised no interest at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in London.