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1. Big state or small state?

As we head towards another General Election in 2015, once again politicians from the Right and Left will battle it out, hoping to persuade the electorate that either a big state or small state will best address the challenges facing our society. For 40 years, Germans living behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had first-hand experience of a big state, with near-full employment and heavily subsidized rent and basic necessities. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell, and East Germany was effectively taken over by West Germany in the reunification process, they were plunged into a new capitalist reality. The whole fabric of daily life changed, from the way people voted, to the brand of butter they bought, to the newspapers that they read. Circumstances forced East Germans to swap Communism for Capitalism, and their feelings about this change remain quite diverse.

Initially, East Germans flooded across the border, bursting with excitement and curiosity to see what the West was like – a ‘West’ that most had only known through watching Western television. For some, sampling a McDonald’s hamburger – the ultimate symbol of Western capitalism – was high on the to-do list, for others it was access to Levi’s jeans or exotic fruit that was particularly novel.

Berlin Wall, November, 1989, by gavinandrewstewart. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Going over the Berlin Wall, November, 1989, by gavinandrewstewart. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

At the same time as delighting in consumer improvements however, many East Germans felt ambivalent about the wider changes. Decades of state propaganda that painted Western societies as unjust places where homelessness, drugs and unemployment were rife, had left its mark, and many East Germans felt unsure and slightly fearful of what was to come.

From a position of full employment in 1989, 3 years after reunification 15% of East Germans were out of work. For those who struggled to put bread on the table after reunification, the advantages of having a wider range of goods to buy remained a largely theoretical gain. For others however, reunification led to greater freedom to pursue individual career choices that were not dictated by the state’s needs.

The end of East Germany’s ‘big state’ model led to the disbanding of its Secret Police, the Stasi, which had rooted out opposition to the State’s dictates. In the 1980s, 91, 000 people worked for the Stasi full time and a further 173, 000 acted as informers. To enforce socialism, they tapped people’s phones, wired their houses, trailed suspects and even collected smell samples in jars, so that sniffer dogs could track their movements.

For those who were made to feel vulnerable and afraid by a regime that watched, trailed and threatened to imprison them, such as political opponents, Christians, environmental activists or other non-conformists, the fall of the Wall and the end of the GDR most often brought relief: the Western set-up allowed for greater freedom of expression and greater freedom of movement.

berlin wall juggling
Juggling on the Berlin Wall, by Yann Forget. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

For the majority of East Germany though, this was not how they felt: since many say they had no idea of the extent to which the Stasi was intertwined with daily life, the end of the GDR did not bring with it a sense of relief. In fact, many East Germans felt that there were many things the West could learn from the GDR, and were resentful at the lack of openness to incorporating any East German policies or practices in the reunification process.

Leaving a Communist society behind and joining an existing Capitalist one brought concrete advantages for East Germans, but it simultaneously threw up a whole new set of challenges. For East Germans, unfamiliar cultural norms in reunited Germany, and also the absence of their usual way of life was profoundly unsettling. As one East German woman put it in a diary entry from December 1989:

“Everywhere is becoming like a foreign land. I have long wished to travel to foreign parts, but I have always wanted to be able to come home … The landscapes remain the same, the towns and villages have the same names, but everything here is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.”

This view was echoed my many East Germans, who were conscious that they, for example, dressed differently from their Western compatriots, didn’t know how to pronounce items on the McDonalds menu when they were ordering and didn’t know how to work coin-operated supermarket trolleys in the West. With the fall of the Wall, a whole way of life evaporated. The certainties on which day to day routines had been built ceased to exist.

Swapping Communism for Capitalism has prompted diverse reactions from East Germans. Few would wish to return to the GDR, even if it were possible. However while many delight in having greater individual choice about what they eat, where they go, what they do and what they say, they often also have a wistful nostalgia for life before reunification, where the disparity between rich and poor was smaller and the solidarity between citizens seemed to be greater.

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2. A composer’s thoughts on re-presentation and transformation

My father, Paul Bullard, was a landscape and portrait painter, and on family holidays he would sit and sketch, sometimes with me by his side, filling my music manuscript paper. As a child, I used to think that his task was easier than mine: all he had to do was to put on paper what he could see in front of him, whereas on the other hand I had to imagine a whole sound world, hearing music in my head, and then put it down on paper. Of course that wasn’t really correct: what I didn’t realize was that his task was to re-present the view in front of him in pen and ink, or oils, and not merely copy it. In other words it was an equally creative process to composing.

Paul Bullard: Suffolk Garden’ courtesy of Alan Bullard
‘Paul Bullard: Suffolk Garden’ courtesy of Alan Bullard

So what my father was doing, I suppose, was looking at an existing object from a different angle, ‘arranging’ it for pen and ink, and that just got me thinking about the way that composers often do that too. At the moment I’m reading John Eliot Gardiner’s book Music in the Castle of Heaven and guided by that I’ve been listening to some of J. S. Bach’s cantatas. In most of these, Bach takes a well-known melody and re-presents it, embroidering the material in a myriad of ways. It wasn’t a new idea of course: composers had been doing it for hundreds of years, but Bach’s skill and variety in transforming the ‘known’ material, both in his choral works and his organ Preludes, is breathtaking. And ever since, many composers have loved to re-present the old with the new in the same way.

And so when I came to write my recent Advent cantata, I found myself using the traditional hymn ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ as a starting point. I turn its phrase shapes into recitatives, and use it as a slowly moving melody in some voices against more decorative singing in the others, so that although the hymn is never sung in its complete form, it permeates the whole work and, I hope, gives the listener a sense of security and comfort. In a similar way, my Christmas cantata, A light in the stable uses the ancient hymn ‘Of our Maker’s love begotten’ as a melodic basis throughout, as well as using a number of Christmas carols, concealed in the background as well as in the foreground.

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3. Rita Angus, Grove Art Online

We invite you to explore the biography of New Zealand painter Rita Angus, as it is presented in Grove Art Online.

New Zealand painter. Angus studied at the Canterbury School of Art, Christchurch (1927–33). In 1930 she married the artist Alfred Cook (1907–70) and used the signature Rita Cook until 1946; they had separated in 1934. Her painting Cass (1936; Christchurch, NZ, A.G.) is representative of the regionalist school that emerged in Canterbury during the late 1920s, with the small railway station visualizing both the isolation and the sense of human progress in rural New Zealand. The impact of North American Regionalism is evident in Angus’s work of the 1930s and 1940s. However, Angus was a highly personal painter, not easily affiliated to specific movements or styles. Her style involved a simplified but fastidious rendering of form, with firm contours and seamless tonal gradations (e.g. Central Otago). Her paintings were invested with symbolic overtones, often enigmatic and individual in nature. The portrait of Betty Curnow (1942; Auckland, A.G.) has generated a range of interpretations relating both to the sitter, wife of the poet Allen Curnow, and its social context.

In her self-portraits, Angus pictured a complex array of often contradictory identities. In Self-portrait (1936–7; Dunedin, NZ, Pub. A.G.) she played the part of the urban, sophisticated and assertive ‘New Woman’. Amongst her most candid works are a series of nude self-portrait pencil drawings, while her watercolours also constitute an important body of work, ranging from portraits and landscapes to painstaking but striking botanical studies such as Passionflower (1943; Wellington, Mus. NZ, Te Papa Tongarewa). The watercolourTree (1943; Wellington, Mus. NZ, Te Papa Tongarewa) carries a sense of mystery, with its surreal stillness and emptiness. Angus’s ‘Goddess’ paintings are equally mysterious. A Goddess of Mercy (1945–7; Christchurch, NZ, A.G.) is an image of peace and harmony. Angus was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II. In Rutu (1951; Wellington, Mus. NZ, Te Papa Tongarewa), she modelled the goddess on her own features, but created a composite figure, half Maori, half European, which suggests an ideal condition of bicultural harmony. The lotus flower held by Rutu reflects Angus’s interest in Buddhism. She thought the Goddess paintings were her most important, and it is on the basis of these works that Angus was hailed as a feminist by subsequent artists and writers.

Cass Station, Canturbury, which inspired Rita Angus's painting, Cass. Photo by Phillip Capper. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Cass Station, Canturbury, which inspired Rita Angus’s painting, Cass. Photo by Phillip Capper. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Angus aimed to evoke transcendental states of being, or a vision beyond mundane reality. In this respect her work connects to European modernism, more so than on the basis of any stylistic affinities. Nonetheless, Angus absorbed some of modernism’s formal innovations, notably degrees of simplification and flattening of form. Towards the end of her career, while she retained motifs based on observation, these were schematic and assembled into composite images, such as Flight(1968–9; Wellington, Mus. NZ, Te Papa Tongarewa). Her Fog, Hawke’s Bay (1966–8; Auckland, A.G.) manifests elements of the faceting and multiple viewpoints of Cubism. Angus’s hard-edged style influenced a younger generation of New Zealand painters, including Don Binney (b 1940) and Robin White.

Bibliography

  • Docking: Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting(Wellington, 1970), p. 146
  • Rita Angus (exh. cat. by J. Paul and others, Wellington, NZ, N.A.G., 1982)
  • Rita Angus (exh. cat., ed. L. Bieringa; Wellington, N.A.G., 1983)
  • Rita Angus: Live to Paint, Paint to Live (exh. cat. by V. Cochran and J. Trevvelyan; Auckland, C.A.G., 2001)
  • V. Cochran and J. Trevelyan: Rita Angus: Live to Paint, Paint to Live(Auckland, 2001)
  • M. Dunn: New Zealand Painting: A Concise History(Auckland, 2003), pp. 85–8
  • P. Simpson: ‘Here’s Looking At You: The Cambridge Terrace Years of of Leo Bensemann and Rita Angus’,Journal of New Zealand Art History, xxv (2004), pp. 23–32
  • J. Trevelyan: Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life(Wellington, 2008)
  • Rita Angus: Life and Vision (exh. cat., ed. W. McAloon and J. Trevelyan; Wellington, Mus. NZ, Te Papa Tongarewa, 2008)

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4. A Woman’s Iliad?

Browsing my parents’ bookshelves recently, in the dog days that followed sending Anna Karenina off to press, I found myself staring at a row of small hardback volumes all the same size. One in particular, with the words Romola and George Eliot embossed in gold on the dark green spine, caught my attention. It was an Oxford World’s Classics pocket edition – a present to my grandmother from her younger sister, who wrote an affectionate inscription in curling black ink (“with Best Love to Dellie on her 20th birthday from Mabel, July 3rd 1917”), and forgot to rub out the price of 1 shilling and 3 pence pencilled inside the front cover. Inside the back cover, meanwhile, towards the bottom of a long list of World’s Classics titles, my heart missed a beat when I espied “Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: in preparation”: Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation was first published only in 1918.

As I drove homethat night with Romola in my bag, I thought about my grandmother reading Eliot’s novel (unusually set in Florence during the Renaissance, rather than in 19th-century England), and I also thought about the seismic changes taking place in Russia at the time of her birthday in 1917. I wondered whether she was given the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Anna Karenina for her 21st birthday, and was disappointed on a later visit to my parents to be presented with her copy of Nathan Haskell Dole’s pioneering but wholly inadequate translation, reprinted in the inexpensive Nelson Classics series. I pictured my grandmother struggling with sentences such as those describing Anna’s hostile engagement with her husband. After Karenin has begun upbraiding Anna for consorting too openly with Vronsky at the beginning of the novel (Part 2, chapter 9), we read, for example: ‘“Nu-s! I hear you,” she said, in a calm tone of banter’. The Maudes later translated this sentence into English (“Well, I’m listening! What next?” said she quietly and mockingly”), but they also changed Tolstoy’s punctuation, and the sarcastically deferential tone of Anna’s voice (Nu-s, ya slushayu, chto budet, – progovorila ona spokoino i nasmeshlivo – “Well, I’m ready to hear what is next,” she said coolly and derisively”).

Back in 1917, Oxford Word’s Classics “pocket editions” featured a line-drawn portrait of the author, but no other illustration. These days, nearly every edition of Anna Karenina has a picture of a woman on the cover, even if Tolstoy’s bearded face is absent opposite the title page. More often than not it will be a Russian woman, painted by a Russian artist, and while we know this is not Anna, it is as if the limits of our imagination are somehow curbed before we even start reading. The dust-jacket for the new hardback Oxford World’s Classics edition of Anna Karenina reproduces Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of Louise Jopling. The fact that this is an English painting of an English woman already mitigates against identifying her too closely with Anna, but this particular portrait is an inspired choice for other reasons, as I began to understand when I researched its history. To begin with, it was painted in 1879, just one year after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel. And the meticulous notes compiled by Vladimir Nabokov which anchor the events of the narrative between 1872 and 1876 also enable us to infer that the fictional Anna Karenina was about the same age as the real-life Louise Jopling, who was 36 when she sat for Millais. Their very different life paths, meanwhile, throw an interesting light on the theme at the centre of Tolstoy’s novel: the predicament of women.

Louise Jane Jopling (née Goode, later Rowe), by Sir John Everett Millais. National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 6612. Wikimedia Commons
Louise Jane Jopling (née Goode, later Rowe), by Sir John Everett Millais. National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 6612. Wikimedia Commons

Louise Jopling was one of the nine children born into the family of a railway contractor in Manchester in 1843. After getting married for the first time in 1861 at the age of 17 to Frank Romer, who was secretary to Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, she studied painting in Paris, but returned to London at the end of the decade when her husband was fired. By 1874, her first husband (a compulsive gambler) and two of her three children were dead, she had married for the second time, to the watercolour painter Joseph Jopling, exhibited at the Royal Academy, and become a fixture in London’s artistic life. To enjoy any kind of success as a female painter at that time in Victorian Britain was an achievement, but even more remarkable was Louise Jopling’s lifelong campaign to improve women’s rights. She founded a professional art school for women in 1887, was a vigorous supporter of women’s suffrage, won voting rights for women at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters after being elected, fought for women to be able to paint from nude models, and became the first woman member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1902. None of these doors were open to Anna Karenina as a member of St. Petersburg high society, although we learn in the course of the novel that she has a keen artistic sense, is a discerning reader, writes children’s fiction, and has a serious interest in education. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya similarly was never given the opportunity to fulfil her potential as a writer, photographer, and painter.

Louise Jopling was a beautiful woman, as is immediately apparent from Millais’ portrait. In her memoirs she describes posing for him in a carefully chosen embroidered black gown made in Paris, and consciously donning a charming and typically feminine expression to match. On the third day she came to sit for Millais, however, the two friends chanced to talk about something which made her feel indignant, and she forgot to wear her “designedly beautiful expression”. What was finally fixed in the portrait was a defiant and “rather hard” look, which, as she acknowledges, ultimately endowed her face with greater character. This peculiar combination of beauty and defiance is perhaps what most recalls the character of Anna Karenina, who in Part 5 of the novel confronts social prejudice and hypocrisy head-on by daring to attend the Imperial Opera in the full glare of the high society grandes dames who have rejected her.

Louise Jopling’s concern with how she is represented in her portrait, as a professional artist in her own right, as a painter’s model, and as a woman, also speaks to Tolstoy’s detailed exploration of the commodification and objectification of women in society and in art (as discussed by Amy Mandelker in her important study Framing Anna Karenina). It is for this reason that we encounter women in a variety of different situations (ranging from the unhappily married Anna, to the betrayed and careworn housewife Dolly, the young bride Kitty, the unmarried companion Varenka, and the former prostitute Marya), and three separate portraits of the heroine, seen from different points of view. Ernest Rhys interestingly compares Anna Karenina to “a woman’s Iliad” in his introduction to the 1914 Everyman’s Library edition of the novel. Another kind of woman’s Iliad could also be woven from the differing stories of some of Tolstoy’s intrepid early translators, amongst them Clara Bell, Isabel Hapgood, Rochelle S. Townsend, Constance Garnett, Louise Maude, Rosemary Edmonds, and Ann Dunnigan, to whom we owe a debt for paving the way.

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5. The ubiquity of structure

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Everything in the natural world has structure – from the very small, like the carbon 60 molecule, to the very large such as mountains and indeed the whole Universe. Structure is the connecting of parts to make a whole – and it occurs at many different levels. Atoms have structure. Structures of atoms make molecules, structures of molecules make tissue and materials, structures of materials make organs and equipment and so on up a hierarchy of different levels as shown in the figure. Within this hierarchy of structure, man-made objects vary from the very small, like a silicon chip to the very large like a jumbo jet. Whereas natural structures have evolved over aeons, man-made structures have to be imagined, designed and built though our own efforts.

Many people, including much of the media, attribute this activity solely to architects. This is unfortunate because architects rely on engineers. Of course the responsibilities are close – it is a team effort. Architecture is the devising, designing, planning and supervising the making of something. Engineering is the turning of an idea into a reality – it is about conceiving, designing, constructing operating and eventually decommissioning something to fulfil a human need. The fact is that engineers play a critical creative role in making structural forms that function as required. They should be given at least equal credit.

Your personal structure is your bones and muscles – they give you form and shape and they function for you as well – for example bone marrow produces blood cells as well as lymphocytes to support your immune system. Your musculoskeletal system also includes all of your connecting tissue such as joints, ligaments and tendons which help you move around. On it are hung all of your other bits and pieces, such as your heart, brain, liver etc. Without structure you would just be a blob of jelly – structure supports who you are and how you function.

In a similar way the structure of a typical man-made structure, like a building, will have beams and columns together with all of the connecting material such as joints, slabs, welds and bolts which keep it together. On it are hung all of the other parts of the building such as the equipment for heating, lighting, communication and all of the furniture, fixtures and fittings. Without structure a building would just be a random pile of components – the function of structure is to support all the other functions of the building.

09Garabit
Garabit Bridge built by Eiffel in France. Photograph by David Blockley.

We can think of the form of a structure from two different points of view – I’ll call them architectural and functional. If you were a building, then the architect would decide your gender, what you look like, your body shape and appearance. However the architect would not decide what is necessary to make the various parts of your body function as they should – that is the job of various kinds of engineer. In other words the architectural form concerns the sense and use of space, functional occupancy by people, symbolism and relationship to setting. It can be decorative and sculptural. The role of an architect is to understand and fulfil the needs of a client for the ways in which a building is to be used and how it will look – its overall form, appearance and aesthetic effect. But the architects who design buildings are not engineers and rarely have the level of scientific knowledge required of professionally qualified engineers. So for example structural engineers must design a structural form that has the function of making a building stand up safely. Indeed engineering safety dominates the design of large structures such as sky-scrapers, bridges, sports stadia, dams, off-shore platforms, fairground rides, ships and aeroplanes.

So what happens when the best architectural form and the best structural form are different – which takes precedence?

Safety and functionality are important necessary requirements – but of course they aren’t sufficient. We need more than that and herein lies the issue. Functionality is often taken for granted, assumed and dismissed as not needing an artistic, creative input – requiring ‘mere’ technique and ‘known’ science. But that is a misreading of being innovative and creative – engineers often do breathtaking complex things that have never been done before. Scientific knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for inspirational engineering – many assumptions and assessments have to be made and there is no such thing as zero risk. Engineering requires practical wisdom.

Some argue that form should follow function – another way of saying that the ends determine the means. However the original meaning, by the American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896, was an expression of a natural law. He wrote ‘Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work horse … form ever follows function, and this is the law …

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (London 2012 Velodrome Uploaded by Flickrworker) [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The philosopher Ervin Laszlo pointed out the difference between form and function does not exist in natural structures. So nature shows us the way. Form and function should be in harmony. We should recognize that good architecture and good engineering are both an art requiring science – but aimed at different purposes. Their historical separation is unfortunate. If an architect specifies a structural form which (whether for artistic/aesthetic reasons or through incompetence) is unbuildable or unnecessarily expensive to build then the final outcome will be poor. The best and most successful projects are where the architects and engineers work together right from the start and given equal credit. At the most mundane level good structural design can leverage orders of magnitudes of savings in costs of construction.

Michel Virlogeux, the French structural engineer responsible for a number of big bridges including the Millau Viaduct in France, says that we design beautiful bridges when the flow of forces is logical. A good architect welcomes the engineering technical discipline to create form through structural art and intelligence and a good engineer welcomes architectural conceptual discipline to create form through aesthetic art and intelligence.

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6. What good is photography?

We’re bombarded with images today as never before. Whether you’re an avid mealtime Instagrammer, snapchatting your risqué images, being photobombed by your pets, capturing appealing colour schemes for your Pinterest moodboard, or simply contributing to the 250,000 or so images added to Facebook every minute, chances are you have a camera about your person most of the time, and use it almost without thinking to document your day.

Images have great social currency online, keeping visitors on a page longer, and increasing the shareability of your content. The old adage that “a picture’s worth a thousand words” comes into its own in an environment where we’re all bombarded with more information than we can consume, where there’s a constant downward pressure on your wordcount, and where you need to be eye-catching and tell a story within 140 characters or fewer. Lives have been changed, public opinion shifted, history made by a single picture. Think of an iconic image, and odds are that many spring straight to your mind, from the powerful – Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack in Vietnam, ‘Tank Man’ facing down the military in Tiananmen Square – to the stage-managed – those construction workers lunching on a skyscraper beam above Manhattan or Doisneau’s ‘Kiss by the Hotel du Ville’ — and many more.

From Reflexionen Eins. © 2014 Matthew Heiderich. All rights reserved.
From Reflexionen Eins. © 2014 Matthew Heiderich. All rights reserved.

Consider just the last few weeks: the violent protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, encapsulated in a single image of heavily armed policemen training their weapons on a lone man with his hands in the air; the images pouring out of Gaza, so at odds with the formal tweets of the IDF; or American photojournalist James Foley – a man who dedicated his life to ensuring such images streamed into our front rooms, into our news feeds, into our consciousness – kneeling next to the man who was about to become his killer. Wherever time and space are at a premium, wherever narrative matters, an image gets the story across in the most direct and powerful way.

Here in Oxford, a new international photography festival seeks to look at just these questions around the power and the purpose of photography, opening up debate about the many issues which surround it in the current climate, aiming to bring world-class work to a new audience and to elevate awareness and appreciation of the form to a level long-since enjoyed by painting, sculpture, and the other visual arts. On Sunday 14 September, colleges, museums, art galleries, and even a giant safe, will welcome visitors into more than 20 free exhibitions showing the work of internationally-renowned photographers, alongside a film programme mixing documentaries and feature films which have images and their use at heart, and a series of talks and panel discussions.

The exhibitions range widely, from powerful photojournalism such as Laura El-Tantawy’s images of a post-Mubarak Egypt, Robin Hammond’s work inside Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the Document Scotland collective’s recording of this truly decisive moment in Scottish history, to Yann Layma’s stunning macros of butterfly wings and Mark Laita’s vibrant images of brightly-coloured snakes; from Susanna Majuri’s elaborate photographic fictions, hovering somewhere between dream and reality, to the vibrant architectural images of Matthias Heiderich; and from Mariana Cook’s portrait series of those who risk their lives for justice to Paddy Summerfield’s moving documentation of the final years of his parents’ 60-year marriage. The UK debut of this year’s World Press Photo award features prominently, alongside French photographer Bernard Plossu’s first-ever British show, and a showcase of work from members of the Helsinki school, including the eminent Pentti Sammallahti and Arno Minkkinen.

Mouth of the River Fosters Pond 2014. © Arno Minkkinen. All rights reserved.
Mouth of the River Fosters Pond 2014. © Arno Minkkinen. All rights reserved.

The festival brings us shows documenting the NGO use of images in campaigns across the decades, or looking at photos which trick us, whether deliberately or inadvertently; a moving exhibition on photography and healing; and one exploring how different artists use photography – digitally, printed on surfaces such as ceramics or metals, or using Victorian techniques. Yet other exhibitions feature powerful portraits of the famous buildings of Oxford and their custodians, of the descendants of some of the world’s most famous historical figures, and Vermeer-inspired portraits of female domesticity from Maisie Broadhead.

Meanwhile the talks and debates include the BBC’s David Shukman on photography and climate change, celebrated landscape photographer Charlie Waite talking about the challenges and joys of landscape photography, and Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden chairing a discussion on Henry Fox Talbot. Panels cover the role of photojournalism in the Northern Ireland peace process, the role of the critic in photography, images and the business world, and the merits and challenges of shooting photographic stories in areas close to home rather than travelling to far flung exotic locations.

Red. © 2012 Susanna Majuri. All rights reserved.
Red. © 2012 Susanna Majuri. All rights reserved.

The festival will draw to a close on Sunday 5 October, with ‘The Tim Hetherington Debate: What Good is Photography’, looking at the importance of photography in the twenty-first century, and a screening of Sebastian Junger’s Which Way is the Front Line from Here, a documentary about the photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, killed in 2011 by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, where he had been covering the civil war.

As festival founder and director Robin Laurance, himself an acclaimed photojournalist, concludes: “It’s time to celebrate the city’s links with the beginnings of an art form that has become ever-present in all our lives. We intend Oxford to be the place where photography is not only celebrated, but where it is debated, examined and challenged. Our aim is to open people’s minds as well as their eyes to photography.”

 

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7. The divine colour blue

In Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, all three figures have blue in their clothing: a bright azure blue which stands out from the predominant warm golden yellows.

Commentaries on the icon refer to this as the blue of the sky, representing divinity. Investigating the correlation of blue with divinity takes us down some surprising and intriguing avenues.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit discusses ‘the blue of distance’. As she explains, the sky is blue because light at the blue end of the spectrum is scattered by air molecules as it travels from the sun to us.

It is the ‘light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost’ which ‘gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue’. She continues:

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.

Blue, therefore, would seem to be a particularly apt colour with which to represent divinity.

The association of divinity with blue goes back much further than Rublev and fifteenth century Russia.

Over a thousand years earlier, the fourth century monk Evagrius of Pontus (an intellectual who fled Constantinople for the solitude of the desert after falling in love with a married woman) wrote of prayer: ‘Prayer is a state of the mind that arises under the influence of the unique light of the Holy Trinity’ (Reflections 27).

Rublev
Rublev’s famous icon showing the three Angels being hosted by Abraham at Mamre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He specified the colour of that light:

When the mind has put off the old self and shall put on the one born of grace, then it will see its own state in the time of prayer resembling sapphire or the colour of heaven; this state scripture calls the place of God that was seen by the elders on Mount Sinai. (On Thoughts 39)

If someone should want to behold the state of his mind, let him deprive himself of all mental representations, and then he shall behold himself resembling sapphire or the colour of heaven. (Reflections 2)

The light of the Trinity, which suffuses the mind in the highest forms of prayer, is sapphire blue, the colour of heaven. Evagrius did not reach this conclusion as a result of abstract thought, but on the basis of a particular biblical verse: Exodus 24:10.

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) with which he will have been familiar, it reads: ‘And they saw the place, there where the God of Israel stood, and that which was beneath his feet, like something made from sapphire brick and like the appearance of the firmament of heaven in purity.’

At this point in Exodus, the Ten Commandments have already been given, and Moses has been commanded to ascend Mount Sinai once more, along with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders.

In the Hebrew Bible they see the God of Israel; but the Greek translation is more circumspect, and there they only see the place where the God of Israel stands. Either way, beneath the feet of God is a pavement of sapphire blue.

Lapis Lazuli Beads
Lapis Lazuli Beads. Photo by cobalt123. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

This ‘sapphire’ (Greek sappheiros, Hebrew sappir) is not the transparent gemstone, but lapis lazuli, a stone prized for its intense deep blue. The word ‘Lazuli’, along with the adjective ‘azure’, derives from the Persian name for the stone. Rublev will have used lapis lazuli as the pigment for his blue.

The Hebrew version of Exodus 24:10 says that lapis lazuli is ‘like the very heavens for clearness’. The stone often includes minute golden pyrite crystals, which shimmer like stars in the night sky.

The Greek translation brings in the word ‘firmament’, which sends us back to Genesis 1:6, where God says, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters’. The firmament was imagined as a solid dome, separating the waters above (the heavens) from the waters below (the sea).

When the prophet Ezekiel has his terrifying vision of the heavenly chariot, he sees four angelic ‘living beings’ (with four faces, and four wings) carrying a crystalline firmament over their heads, upon which is a sapphire (i.e. lapis lazuli) throne.

On the throne is ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’ (Ezekiel 1:28). In other words, Ezekiel has a vision of God at three removes: a fiery being on a blue throne.

In the biblical descriptions of Genesis, Exodus and Ezekiel, physical and spiritual heavens are intertwined. The blue of the sky merges with the throne of God. Evagrius begins a process of interiorising these descriptions, just as Rebecca Solnit interiorises the physics of scattered blue light.

For Evagrius, Mount Sinai becomes a landmark in the geography of the soul. And the colour blue symbolises the internal state of the mind at prayer. An internal state no doubt Rublev aimed to foster with his use of divine azure blue.

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8. The history of Christian art and architecture

Although basilisks, griffins, and phoenixes summon ideas of myth and lore, they are three of several fantastic beings displayed in a Christian context. From the anti-Christian Roman emperor Diocletian to the legendary Knights of the Templar, a variety of unexpected subjects, movements, themes, and artists emerge in the history of Christian art and architecture. To get an idea of its scope, we mined The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture for information to test your knowledge.

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Headline image credit: St Peter’s facade. Photo by Livioandronico2013. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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9. A conversation with Dr. Steven Nelson, Grove Art Online guest editor

Grove Art Online recently updated with new content on African art and architecture. We sat down with Dr. Steven Nelson, who supervised this update, to learn more about his background and the field of African art history.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

As an undergraduate at Yale, after flirting with theater, music, and sociology, I majored in studio art and focused on bookmaking, graphic design, printmaking, and photography. Majors were required to take three art history classes. By the end of my college career, I had taken eight and had seriously thought about changing my major. Within art history, I was most attracted to modern and Japanese art, and studying the two fields had profound effects on art making. After a six-year-long stint in newspaper design, I went to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in modern art. After coursework in myriad fields, serving on a search committee for a new faculty member in African art (the search resulted in the hiring Suzanne Preston Blier), and a trip to Kenya to study medieval Swahili architecture, I changed my field to African art. My dissertation is a study of Mousgoum architecture (one of the fields covered in Grove Art Online’s African update) in Cameroon. The thesis became my first book, entitled From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture In and Out of Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Having been an artist has had a profound effect on how I encounter art objects and the built environment.

You recently served as editor for the Grove Art Online African art update. What was your favorite part about this experience?

My favorite part of serving as editor for the Grove Art Online African art update was the opportunity to have a widely used and respected resource as a platform to reassess and to reshape the canon of African art. More to the point, Grove provided a unique opportunity to rearticulate the field’s various methods, to acknowledge shifts in scholarly focus, and to expand the subjects we consider when hearing the very term “African art.” As someone who has served at various points as an editor, I also enjoyed working with authors to produce essays that are both rich in content and accessible to a broad audience. I’m also very pleased that the authors included in the update range from very eminent art historians to graduate students with whom I closely worked.

2048px--Igbo_and_His_People-_-_NARA_-_558801
Igbo and His People. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What is your favorite work of art of all time, and why?

My favorite work of art of all time changes day-by-day. Right now Malick Sidibé’s party photographs of the 1960s, which explore a burgeoning, international youth culture in Bamako on the heels of independence, hold this title.

Which recently added African art article(s) stand out to you, and why?

While I am really happy with all of the new content, the material on African film and the essay on African modern art are particular importance for me. In African art history, broadly speaking, film has received very little attention (in full disclosure, I write on it myself). However, it is critical in understanding the complexity of modern and contemporary African art. The essay on modern African art is important in that it marks an important expansion of the field, one in which scholars are insisting on understanding modernity and how African artists engage with it with more nuance and precision.

How has your field changed in the past 20 years?

The past 20 years have witnessed a groundswell in studies of modern and contemporary African art. Alongside of this development, the past 20 years have also seen a lot of energy (for better or worse) spent on understanding the relationship between modern and contemporary and “traditional” or “classical” African art. On the one hand, some feel that the two should be considered as separate fields, with the former being a kind of offshoot of global contemporary art. On the other, some feel that the two can inform each other in exciting ways. Having done research on topics ranging from medieval Swahili architecture to contemporary art in Africa and its diasporas, I personally ascribe to the latter view. Methodologically, much has changed as well. Africanist art historians have become much more willing to incorporate poststructuralist and post-colonial scholarship into their studies, and the results have enriched how we understand the subjects of our endeavors. There has also been much welcome attention paid to the important intersections of African art and Islam as well as African art and Christianity.

How do you envision art history research being done in 20 years?

Digital humanities will no doubt have an enormous impact research on art history research. Digital tools allow for quick aggregation, and this can add rich dimensions to our research. One of the challenges, however, will be to see how — or if — the digital realm provides the means for new questions and new art historical knowledge. I helped facilitate a digital art history workshop at UCLA this past summer, and that question, one that really strikes at the place of the digital as we move forward, is one that I engage with both optimism and a healthy skepticism.

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10. Announcing the winners of the street photography competition

By Victoria Davis


This year, in honor of World Art Day, Oxford invited photographers of all levels to submit their best street photography. Thank you to all of you who submitted! We received many thought-provoking, original entries, and are now happy to announce the winners.

Street photography is, according to Grove Art Online, a “genre of photography that can be understood as the product of an artistic interaction between a photographer and an urban public space.”

First place goes to Emily Huang for her photo “One Direction” taken in Taipei, Taiwan. Both of our judges were immediately drawn to this photograph, with Dr. Lisa Hostetler (Curator-in-Charge at George Eastman House) explaining: “This is a witty image that speaks volumes about the ubiquity of cameras on urban streets today, a situation that has fundamentally altered the nature and practice of street photography. It also recalls precedents in the history of photography, such as Friedlander’s Mount Rushmore.”

One Direction," Taipei, Taiwan. ©Emily Huang.

“One Direction,” Taipei, Taiwan. ©Emily Huang.

Emily will receive $100 worth of OUP books.

Second place goes to Leanne Staples for her photo “Life Goes One” taken in New York City. Dr. Hostetler explains: “An allusion to classic street photography, this photograph gives the viewer the sense of participating in the experience of the street alongside the photographer.”

“Life Goes On,” New York, NY. ©Leanne Staples.

Leanne will take home a copy of our Photography: A Very Short Introduction.

Congratulations to both of our winners!

Victoria Davis works in marketing for Oxford University Press, including Grove Art and Oxford Art Online.

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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11. Photography and social change in the Central American civil wars

By Erina Duganne


Many hope, even count on, photography to function as an agent of social change. In his 1998 book, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises, communications scholar David Perlmutter argues, however, that while photographs “may stir controversy, accolades, and emotion,” they “achieve absolutely nothing.”

camera

Camera Lens, by Jkimxpolygons. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In my current research project, I examine the difficult question of what contribution photography has made to social change through an examination of images documenting events from the Central American civil wars — El Salvador and Nicaragua, more specifically — that circulated in the United States in the 1980s. Rather than measure the influence of these photographs in terms of narrowly conceived causal relationships concerning issues of policy, I argue that to understand what these images did and did not achieve, they need to be situated in terms of their broader social, political, and cultural effects — effects that varied according to the ever shifting relations of their ongoing reproduction and reception. Below are three platforms across which photographs from the wars in Central America circulated and recirculated in the United States in the 1980s.

(1)   In the early 1980s, the US government adopted a dual policy of military support in Central America. In El Salvador, they provided aid against the guerilla forces or FMLN while in Nicaragua they backed the contra war against the Sandinistas. Many Americans learned and formulated opinions about these policies through photographs that circulated in the news media. The cover of the 22 March 1982 issue of Time, for instance, featured a photograph of a gunship flying over El Salvador. Taken by US photojournalist Harry Mattison, the editors at Time used the photograph as part of their cover story questioning the use by the US government of aerial reconnaissance photographs of military installations in Nicaragua to establish a causal link between the leftist insurgents in El Salvador and Communist governments worldwide.

(2)   In addition to these reconnaissance photographs, the Reagan administration also turned to photography in an eight-page State Department white paper entitled Communist Interference in El Salvador, which was released to the American public on 23 February 1981. In this white paper, the US government included two sets of military intelligence photographs of captured weapons, which they believed would help them to further provide the American public with “irrefutable proof” of Communist involvement via Russia and Cuba in Central America, and thereby justify the escalation of US military and economic aid to the supposedly moderate Salvadoran government. The aforementioned article in Time also questioned the validity of the sources used in this document.

(3)   While photography played a prominent role in debates over the existence of a communist threat in Central America, beginning in 1983, a number of artists and photographers — Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, Group Material, Marta Bautis, Mel Rosenthal, among others — put photographs from the Central American conflicts, some of which had circulated directly in the aforementioned contexts and others which had not, to a different use. Rather than employ photographs to perpetuate or even question the accuracy of communist aggression in the region, these artists and photographers instead used the medium to examine the imperialist underpinning of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in Central America as well as the longstanding geopolitical and historical implications of US involvement there. To this end, they produced the following: the 1983 photography book and exhibition El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which was edited by Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, and Fae Rubenstein and toured various US cities in 1984 and 1985; Group Material’s 1984 multi-media installation Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, on view at the P.S. Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York, as part of the ad hoc protest organization Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America; and the exhibition The Nicaragua Media Project that toured various US cities in 1984 and 1985. Together these three photography books and art exhibitions provided, what I call, a “living” history for photographs from the Central American civil wars.

In his 1978 essay “Uses of Photography” that was anthologized in his 1980 book About Looking, cultural critic John Berger argues that for photographs to “exist in time,” they need to be placed in the “context of experience, social experience, social memory.” Using Berger’s definition of a “living” history as a model, my research project offers a novel way to think about how, within the contexts of these exhibitions and books, photographs from the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua functioned as dynamic, even affective objects, whose mobility and mutability could empower contemporary viewers to look beyond the so-called communist threat in the region that was perpetuated through the Reagan administration as well as the news media and begin to think more carefully about past histories of US imperialism and global human oppression in Central America.

Erina Duganne is Associate Professor of Art History at Texas State University where she teaches courses in American art, photography, and visual culture. She is the author of The Self in Black and White: Race and Subjectivity in Postwar American Photography (2010) as well as a co-editor and an essayist for Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (2007). She has also written about her current research project for the blog In the Darkroom.

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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12. Ricky Swallow, Grove Art Online

By Rex Butler

We invite you to explore the biography of Australian artist Ricky Swallow, as it is presented in Grove Art Online.

The_Victorian_College_of_The_Arts_in_St_Kilda_Road

The Victorian College of The Arts. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

(b San Remo, Victoria, 1974). Australian conceptual artist, active also in the USA. Swallow came to prominence only a few years after completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, by winning the prestigious Contempora 5 art prize in 1999. Swallow could be said to have ushered in a wholly new style in Australian art after the appropriation art of the 1980s and 1990s. His first mature work was a hammerhead shark made out of plaid, later followed by such objects as bicycles and telescopes made out of plastic. These were not hyperreal simulacra in the manner of Pop artist George Segal or sculptor Ron Mueck. Rather, in remaking these objects in altered materials, Swallow wanted to open up a whole series of associations around memory and obsolescence. In one of the works for Contempora 5, Model for a Sunken Monument (1999), Swallow made a vastly scaled-up version of the mask Darth Vader wore in the Star Wars movies, fabricated out of sectioned pieces of fibreboard, which produced the effect of a melting or compression or indeed a diffraction, as though the piece were being looked at under water. Swallow also made a series of works that featured death as a subject, including iMan Prototypes (2001), which involved a number of skulls made of coloured plastic that looked like computer casings, and Everything is Nothing (2003), in which a carved wooden skull lies on its side inside an Adidas hood. In 2005, he was selected as Australia’s representative at the Venice Biennale, for which he produced Killing Time (2005). In this piece Swallow carved an extraordinary still-life of a table covered with a series of objects (fish, lobster, lemon), seemingly out of a single piece of Jelutong maple, in the manner of the Dutch vanitas painters of the 17th century. Swallow’s artistic lineage would undoubtedly include Jasper Johns, in particular his 1960 casting of two beer cans in bronze. His work could also be compared to contemporary Australian artist Patricia Piccinini and international artist Tom Friedman. Without a doubt, Swallow belongs to a generation of Australian artists who make work outside of any national tradition and without reference to the by-now exhausted critical questions associated with Post-modernism.

Bibliography

  • E. Colless: ‘The World Ends When Its Parts Wear Out’, Memory Made Plastic (exh. cat., Sydney, Darren Knight Gallery, 2000)
  • J. Patton: Ricky Swallow: Field Recordings (Roseville, 2005)
  • A. Gardner: ‘Art in the Face of Fame: Ricky Swallow’s Refection of Reputation’, Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture, i (2007), pp. 60–79
  • A. Geczy: ‘Overdressed for the Prom’, Broadsheet, xxxvi/3 (2007), pp. 60–79

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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13. The rise and fall of the Macedonian Empire in pictures

By Ian Worthington


Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), King of Macedonia, ruled an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to India in the east and as far south as Egypt. The Macedonian Empire he forged was the largest in antiquity until the Roman, but unlike the Romans, Alexander established his vast empire in a mere decade. As well as fighting epic battles against enemies that far outnumbered him in Persia and India, and unrelenting guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan, this charismatic king, who was worshiped as a god by some subjects and only 32 when he died, brought Greek civilization to the East, opening up East to West as never before and making the Greeks realize they belonged to a far larger world than just the Mediterranean.

Yet Alexander could not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for his often overlooked father, Philip II (r. 359-336), who transformed Macedonia from a disunited and backward kingdom on the periphery of the Greek world into a stable military and economic powerhouse and conquered Greece. Alexander was the master builder of the Macedonian empire, but Philip was certainly its architect. The reigns of these charismatic kings were remarkable ones, not only for their time but also for what — two millennia later — they can tell us today. For example, Alexander had to deal with a large, multi-cultural subject population, which sheds light on contemporary events in culturally similar regions of the world and can inform makers of modern strategy.



Ian Worthington is Curators’ Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Missouri. He is the author of numerous books about ancient Greece, including Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece and By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire.

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Images: 1. From By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. Used with permission. 2. Bust of Alexander the Great at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek by Yair Haklai. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 3. Map of Greece from By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. Used with permission. 4. Macedonian phalanx by F. Mitchell, Department of History, United States Military Academy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 5. Aristotle Altemps Inv8575 by Jastrow. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. 6. Alexander Mosaic by Magrippa. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 7. The Death of Alexander the Great after the painting by Karl von Piloty (1886). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. Ten landscape designers who changed the world

vsi

By Ian Thompson


It comes as a surprise to many people that landscapes can be designed. The assumption is that landscapes just happen; they emerge, by accident almost, from the countless activities and uses that occur on the land.  But this ignores innumerable instances where people have intervened in landscape with aesthetic intent, where the landscape isn’t just happenstance, but the outcome of considered planning and design.  Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux coined a name for this activity in 1857 when they described themselves as ‘landscape architects’ on their winning competition entry for New York’s Central Park; but ‘landscape architecture’  had been going on for centuries under different designations, including master-gardening’, ‘place-making’, and ‘landscape gardening’. To avoid anachronism, I’m going to call the entire field ‘landscape design’. The ‘top ten’ designers that follow are those I think have been the most influential.  These people have shaped your everyday world.

André Le Nôtre (1613 –1700).  France’s most famous gardener was employed by Louis XIV to create, at the palace of Versailles, the most extensive gardens in the Western world. Le Nôtre brought the Renaissance style, based upon symmetry and order, to its zenith. Versailles was copied, not only by the designers of other princely gardens, such as those at La Granja in Spain, the Peterhof near St. Petersburg or the Schönbrunn Palace in  Vienna, but by city planners who appropriated its geometry of intersecting axes. The most surprising example is the influential plan for Washington D.C. produced in 1791 by the French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who had grown up at Versailles.

The palace of Versailles gardens

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716 –1783). Lancelot Brown is credited with changing the face of eighteenth century England. From humble origins, he become the most sought-after landscape designer in the country, undertaking over 250 commissions, including Temple Newsam in Yorkshire, Petworth in West Sussex and Compton Verney in Warwickshire.  He swept away many formal gardens to create the naturalistic parkland which subsequently become an icon of Englishness.  The style has been emulated worldwide:  Munich has its Englischer Garten, while Stockholm has the Hagaparken and Paris the Parc Monceau.

Compton Verney gardens, Warwickshire

Thomas Jefferson (1743 –1826)  Yes, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States was also a landscape designer. Not only did he lay out the grounds of his own property at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia as an ornamental farm, but he also created the influential masterplan for the campus of the University of Virginia. However, his greatest impact upon the American landscape, for better or worse, was his advocacy of the grid for the subdivision of territory and for rational town planning.

Drawing of Pavilion III, The Lawn, University of Virginia campus

William Wordsworth (1770-1850).  The poet might seem an unlikely selection, but Wordsworth designed several gardens, not just for his own houses, but also for those of friends. However, my principal reason for including him in this list is that he wrote the Guide to the Lakes, first published in 1810, which was notionally a travel guide, but was just as much a design guide, full of thoughtful advice about how to build – and when not to build – in a sensitive cultural landscape. Wordsworthian values were a significant influence upon the founders of the National Trust and continue to inform thinking about landscape conservation.

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) Olmsted is often seen as the founding father of the landscape architecture profession. He thought that the creation of pastoral parks within teeming cities could counteract the adverse effects of industrialization and urbanization. In addition to Central Park, New York City, he was the designer of Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the system of linked parks in Boston known as the ‘Emerald Necklace’. His plan for the residential community of Riverside, Illinois, became the template for innumerable suburbs, not all of the same quality. He was also prominent in the campaign to preserve scenic landscapes, such as the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove from development and commercial disfigurement.

The 1894 plan for the Emerald Necklace Park System in Boston, Massachusetts

Thomas Dolliver Church (1902-1978) When a style becomes ubiquitous, we sometimes forget that someone pioneered it. Church was a Californian designer who created elegantly functional ‘outdoor rooms’ for a sybaritic West Coast lifestyle.  Those curvaceous, free form swimming pools that appear in American movies and TV shows from the 1950s onwards are Church’s principal contribution to cultural history, but he was an important figure in the rise of Modernist landscape design in the mid twentieth century.

Ian McHarg (1920-2001) Scottish-born McHarg was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania when he wrote Design with Nature, published 1969, the most influential book ever written by a landscape architect. McHarg’s thesis was that we should design our environment in harmony with natural forces, rather than in opposition to them. He pointed out the foolishness of such practices as building houses on floodplains. His advice seems ever more prescient as the world begins to cope with the consequences of climate change.   

Peter Latz (1939 -)  Landscape designers in many countries have been involved in the reclamation of derelict industrial sites. Latz’s office recognized that reclamation does not need to mean the complete erasure of all history. Instead it can recognise the value of what remains. Most famously, Latz turned a rusting Ruhr valley steelworks into the Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord, where gardens flourish in former ore bunkers, rock-climbers practice on old concrete walls, and scuba-divers plunge into pools created within onetime gasholders. This approach to reclamation, which works with memory and aims to preserve as much of the existing site as possible, is rapidly becoming mainstream.

Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord

James Corner (1961 -)  English-born Corner is now Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and principal of the New York based practice, Field Operations. He is perhaps the world’s most celebrated landscape architect, following the extraordinary success of the High Line project on Manhattan, which turned an abandoned railway viaduct into a linear park, visited by around four million people per year. Field Operations are also working on the Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island, transforming it into one of the world’s biggest urban parks.

Kongjian Yu  (1963-)  Educated at Beijing Forestry University and Harvard Graduate School of Design, Professor Yu now heads the innovative Turenscape practice which has created many remarkable new landscapes in China, including the Zhongshan Shipyard Park, a reclamation project similar in philosophy to Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord. Turenscape makes use of vernacular features of the Chinese agricultural landscape, such as paddy fields and irrigation channels, to create striking new urban parks. Many of Yu’s park designs, such as the Floating Garden at Yongning River Park, demonstrate an ecological approach to flood control.

Ian Thompson is a Chartered Landscape Architect and Reader in Landscape Architecture in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University. He worked as a landscape architect from 1979 to 1992, mostly on work related to environmental improvement, derelict land reclamation and urban renewal, before taking up a lecturing post at Newcastle University.  He is the author of many books including Landscape Architecture: A Very Short Introduction.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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Image credits: 1) By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium [CC-BY-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons 2) Graham Taylor [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Leslie S. Claytor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) By Boston Parks Department & Olmsted Architects (National Park Service Olmsted Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 5) By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons

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15. OK Go: Is the Writing on the Wall?

By Siu-Lan Tan


When I saw OK Go’s ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ video a few days ago, I was stunned. If you aren’t one of the over eight million people that has seen this viral music video yet, you’re in for a visual treat.

OK Go is known for creative videos, but this is the band’s richest musical collage of optical illusions so far. The most amazing part is that it was done … in one take!

Click here to view the embedded video.

Over 7.5 million viewers saw this extraordinary video in the first week it was posted.

And just newly released, OK Go uploaded this equally splendid video that gives us a ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ look.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Just a lucky coincidence?

OK Go posted ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ on 17 June 2014. I wonder if they knew this is a significant date for Gestalt psychology? Important enough to be in the APA’s historical database for 17 June:

“June 17, 1924. Robert M. Ogden of Cornell University wrote to German psychologist Kurt Koffka, inviting him to become a visiting lecturer. This was the first step… that brought Gestaltists Koffka, Köhler, Wertheimer, and Lewin to America” (Street, 2007)

Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler are key figures in Gestalt psychology who laid the groundwork for what we know about perception, especially how we organize visual elements into meaningful wholes. Central to their work is the idea of ‘figure’ versus ‘ground’ – or how we distinguish the main focus (or figure) from the background or landscape in which it is set (ground).

They were also interested in perceptual illusions, influenced by psychologist Edgar Rubin who created many figure/ground illusions such as the Rubin vase, which now appears in every introductory psychology book.

Here’s a modern version: Are these columns or five tall standing figures with bowed heads? That depends on what you take to be figure vs. ground.

153733-157359

OK Go’s ‘The Writing on the Wall’ plays with figure/ground relations. Many illusions in this brilliant music video ambiguate, and then disambiguate, what is foreground versus background.

This is especially well illustrated in the illusion that “the writing’s on the wall” — as it never really is. In every appearance of the written word == in the title, the blurbs in the middle, and the amazing reveal at the end — the writing’s never on the wall.

Instead, the words blend figure and ground into single alignment. The illusion works — and then is dismantled before our eyes — as the movement of objects or camera disentangle what is foreground and background.

Figure and ground seem to dissolve into each other as the musicians emerge from the red, blue, yellow shapes.

Ambiguity of where figure and ground separate is pushed even further with single images that blend foreground with distant surfaces (floors, walls): blue spots, a network of cubes, a ladder, green checkered tiles, and a row of people that appear to stand together. It’s brilliantly captured at 02:47, in the aerial image of a multi-layered apparatus that “flattens out” into a representation of drummer Tim Nordwind’s bearded face (screenshot below).

153733-157370

The walkthrough also takes us through the development of art: from basic shapes, to patterns (dots, stripes), to 3D (or not) cubes, geometric sculptures, and finally to representations of the human face and full body figures.

The music is not just an accompaniment to the collage of optical illusions and paradoxes, but an integral part of the work. The song is about miscommunication that can go on in a relationship. (Or is the idea of two people really ‘getting each other’ merely an illusion?)

The result is wonderfully perplexing, a delicious trick of the senses. And a fitting tribute to the 17 June landmark in Gestalt psychology.

Siu-Lan Tan is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Psychology Today. Siu-Lan Tan also has her own blog, What Shapes Film? Read her previous blog posts.

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Image Credit: Optical illusion. Image by Sha Sha Chu. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via shashachu Flickr.

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16. Scenes from the Odyssey in Ancient Art

The Ancient Greeks were incredibly imaginative and innovative in their depictions of scenes from The Odyssey, painted onto vases, kylikes, wine jugs, or mixing bowls. Many of Homer’s epic scenes can be found on these objects such as the encounter between Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus and the battle with the Suitors. It is clear that in the Greek culture, The Odyssey was an influential and eminent story with memorable scenes that have resonated throughout generations of both classical literature enthusiasts and art aficionados and collectors. We present a brief slideshow of images that appear in Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation of The Odyssey.



Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.

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17. Characters of the Odyssey in Ancient Art

Every Ancient Greek knew their names: Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachas, Nestor, Helen, Menelaos, Ajax, Kalypso, Nausicaä, Polyphemos, Ailos… The trials and tribulations of these characters occupied the Greek mind so much that they found their way into ancient art, whether mosaics or ceramics, mirrors or sculpture. From heroic nudity to small visual cues in clothing, we present a brief slideshow of characters that appear in Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation of The Odyssey.



Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.

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18. Contested sites on India’s Deccan Plateau

By Richard M. Eaton and Phillip B Wagoner


Power and memory combined to produce the Deccan Plateau’s built landscape. Beyond the region’s capital cities, such as Bijapur, Vijayanagara, or Golconda, the culture of smaller, fortified strongholds both on the plains and in the hills provides a fascinating insight into its history. These smaller centers saw very high levels of conflict between 1300 and 1600, especially during the turbulent sixteenth century when gunpowder technology had become widespread in the region. Below is a selection of images of architecture and monuments, examined through a mix of methodologies (history, art history, and archaeology), taken from our new book Power, Memory, and Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600.



Richard M. Eaton is Professor of History at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Phillip B. Wagoner is Professor of Art History at Wesleyan University. They are authors of Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600.

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19. The Fair Toxophilities and Daniel Deronda

By K. M. Newton


The painting The Fair Toxophilites: English Archers by W. P. Frith, dating from 1872, is one of a series representing contemporary life in England. Frith wrote that his”

“desire to discover materials for my work in modern life never leaves me … and, though I have occasionally been betrayed by my love into themes somewhat trifling and commonplace, the conviction that possessed me that I was speaking – or rather painting – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, rendered the production of real-life pictures an unmixed delight. In obedience to this impulse I began work on a small work suggested by some lady-archers, whose feats had amused me at the seaside … The subject was trifling, and totally devoid of character interest; but the girls are true to nature, and the dresses will be a record of the female habiliments of the time.”

After Gwendolen Harleth’s encounter with Daniel Deronda in Leubronn in Chapters 1 and 2, there’s a flashback to Gwendolen’s life in the year leading up to that meeting, with Chapters 9 to 11 focusing on the Archery Meeting, where she first meets Henleigh Grandcourt, and its consequences. In the England of the past archery was the basis of military and political power, most famously enabling the English to defeat the French at Agincourt. In the later nineteenth century it is now a leisure pursuit for upper-class women. This may be seen as symptomatic of the decline or even decadence of the upper class since it is now associated with an activity which Frith suggests is “trifling and commonplace.” A related symptom of that decline is the devotion of aristocratic and upper-class men, such as Grandcourt and Sir Hugo Mallinger, to a life centred on hunting and shooting.

The Fair Toxophilites

The Frith painting shows a young female archer wearing a fashionable and no doubt extremely expensive dress and matching hat. This fits well with the novel for Gwendolen takes great care in her choice of a dress that will enhance her striking figure and make her stand out at the Archery Meeting, since “every one present must gaze at her” (p.  89), especially Grandcourt. The reader may similarly be inclined to gaze at the figure in the painting. One might say that together with her bow and arrow Gwendolen dresses to kill, an appropriate expression for arrows can kill though in her case she wishes only to kill Grandcourt metaphorically: “My arrow will pierce him before he has time for thought” (p. 78). Readers of the novel will discover that light-hearted thoughts about killing Grandcourt will take a more serious turn later.

With the coming of Grandcourt into the Wancester neighbourhood through renting Diplow Hall, the thoughts of young women and especially their mothers turn to thoughts of marriage – there is obvious literary allusion to the plot of Pride and Prejudice in which Mr Bingley’s renting of Netherfield Park creates a similar effect. The Archery Meeting is the counterpart to the ball in Pride and Prejudice since it is an opportunity for women to display themselves to the male gaze in order to attract eligible husbands and no man is more eligible than Grandcourt. Whereas Mr Darcy eventually turns out to be the perfect gentleman, in Eliot’s darker vision Grandcourt has degenerated into a sadist, “a remnant of a human being” (p. 340), as Deronda calls him. Though Gwendolen is contemptuous of the Archery Meeting as marriage-market, she cannot help being drawn into it as she believes at this point that ultimately a woman of her class, background, and upbringing has no viable alternative to marriage.

While Grandcourt’s moving into Diplow Hall together with his likely attendance of the Archery Meeting become the central talking points of the neighbourhood among Gwendolen and her circle, the narrator casually mentions another matter that is being ignored – “the results of the American war” (p. 74). Victory for the North in the Civil War established the United States as a single nation, one which would ultimately become a great power. There is a similar passing reference later to the Prussian victory over the Austrians at “the world-changing battle of Sadowa” (p. 523), a major step towards the emergence of a unified German nation. While the English upper class are living trivial lives the world is changing around them and Britain’s time as the dominant world power may be ending.

Though the eponymous Deronda does not feature in this part of the novel, he is in implicit contrast to Gwendolen and the upper-class characters as he is preoccupied with these larger issues and uninvolved in trivial activities like archery or hunting and finally commits himself to the ideal of creating a political identity for the Jews. When he tells Gwendolen near the end of the novel of his plans, she is at first uncomprehending but is forced to confront the existence and significance of great events that she previously had ignored through being preoccupied with such “trifling” matters as making an impression at the Archery Meeting: “… she felt herself reduced to a mere speck. There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind … enter like an earthquake into their own lives — when the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the tread of an invading army or the dire clash of civil war” (p. 677). She will no longer be oblivious of something like “the American war.” By the end of the novel the reader looking at the painting on the front cover may realize that though this woman who resembles Gwendolen remains trapped in triviality and superficiality, the character created in the mind of the reader by the words of the novel has moved on from that image and undergone a fundamental alteration in consciousness.

 K. M. Newton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Dundee. He is the editor, with Graham Handley, of the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credit: The Fair Toxophilites by W. P. Frith. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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20. Remembering 100 years: Fashion and the outbreak of the Great War

In August 2014 the world marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

A time of great upheaval for countless aspects of society, social, economic and sexual to name a few, the onset of war punctured the sartorial mold of the early 20th century and resulted in perhaps one of the biggest strides to clothing reform that women had ever seen.

The turn of the century began with a feeling of unease and fevered anticipation regarding the changing political climate; the ‘new woman’ of the fin-de-siècle and the clothes associated with her threatened to disrupt conservative gender values of the middle and upper classes. But the position of women was about to take an even sharper turn. As it soon became necessary to recruit women into the war effort, hemlines got shorter, cuts became looser, and the two-piece suit took centre stage for the first time, making way for more practical attire. Women experienced a relative degree of liberation, entering professions and industries previously dominated by men, which created the need for an entirely new ‘working wardrobe’.

Official Yeowoman’s Costume of the US Navy 1101 Delineator, November 1918. Commercial Pattern Archive, University of Rhode Island.
Official Yeowoman’s Costume of the US Navy 1101 Delineator, November 1918. Commercial Pattern Archive, University of Rhode Island. Joy Emery explores the development of US service uniforms and the introduction of women’s trousers during the First World War in her authoritative A History of the Paper Pattern Industry (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Permeating mainstream and avant-garde fashion and fuelling the rise of the female’s role in the public sphere, fashion was about to move in a new, androgynous direction. Practical clothing influenced by men’s tailoring led the way and the suit, newly composed of jackets and skirts, developed its own identity as a women’s garment with soft, loose lines. In the world of high fashion, Paul Poiret and his taste for the ‘exotic’ firmly established the innovative trend for the tube-like silhouette, which reverberated throughout the fashion sphere more broadly. The kimono similarly burst onto the scene, reflecting the sentiment for looser and freer garments. Also, perhaps less well-remarked is the rapid development of the department store in Europe, which acknowledged the increasingly varied roles of women and made ready-made garments more available than ever before.

The changes were not only evident in Britain. Relationships between Germany and the French houses that dominated the fashion scene became increasingly fraught at the outbreak of war. As Irene Guenther remarks in Nazi Chic?, “the war was viewed as providing the perfect opportunity to unseat France, militarily and sartorially, from its throne. Because the conflict had slowed down the French fashion machine, a space had developed that the German nation was eager and ready to fill.” Luxury items imported from France, including silk, lace, and leather gloves were forbidden and a culture of “make do and mend” was established, which was set to echo throughout the Second World War that was to follow.

The Great War and its disruptions, dislocations, and recastings is rarely remembered for its creative output, but the war made way for innovative fashions and manufacturing techniques to suit a rapidly changing society and the new roles for the women and men who inhabited it. The sartorial changes witnessed in this turbulent decade became visual signifiers of the larger upheavals facing British and European society more generally, and we only have to look to our sartorial history from this period to sneak a peek at the way in which societal roles were uprooted and the face of women’s fashion markedly changed.

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21. Dispatches from the Front: German Feldpostkarten in World War I

In the first autumn of World War I, a German infantryman from the 25th Reserve Division sent this pithy greeting to his children in Schwarzenberg, Saxony.

11 November 1914
My dear little children!
How are you doing? Listen to your mother and grandmother and mind your manners.
Heartfelt greetings to all of you!
Your loving Papa

He scrawled the message in looping script on the back of a Feldpostkarte, or field postcard, one that had been designed for the Bahlsen cookie company by the German artist and illustrator Änne Koken. On the front side of the postcard, four smiling German soldiers share a box of Leibniz butter cookies as they stand on a grassy, sun-stippled outpost. The warm yellow pigment of the rectangular sweets seems to emanate from the opened care package, flushing the cheeks of the assembled soldiers with a rosy tint.

Änne Koken, color lithographic postcard (Feldpostkarte) designed for the H. Bahlsen Keksfabrik, Hannover, ca. November 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Änne Koken, color lithographic postcard (Feldpostkarte) designed for the H. Bahlsen Keksfabrik, Hannover, ca. November 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

German citizens posted an average of nearly 10 million pieces of mail to the front during each day of World War I, and German service members sent over 6 million pieces in return; postcards comprised well over half of these items of correspondence. For active duty soldiers, postage was free of charge. Postcards thus formed a central and a portable component of wartime visual culture, a network of images in which patriotic, sentimental, and nationalistic postcards formed the dominant narrative — with key moments of resistance dispatched from artists and amateurs serving at the front.

The first postcards were permitted by the Austrian postal service in 1869 and in Germany one year later. (The Post Office Act of 1870 allowed for the first postcards to be sold in Great Britain; the United States followed suit in 1873.) Over the next four decades, Germany emerged as a leader in the design and printing of colorful picture postcards, which ranged from picturesque landscapes to tinted photographs of famous monuments and landmarks. Many of the earliest propaganda postcards, at the turn of the twentieth century, reproduced cartoons and caricatures from popular German humor magazines such as Simplicissimus, a politically progressive journal that moved toward an increasingly reactionary position during and after World War I. Indeed, the majority of postcards produced and exchanged between 1914 and 1918 adopted a sentimental style that matched the so-called “hurrah kitsch” of German official propaganda.

Walter Georgi, Engineers Building a Bridge, 1915. Color lithographic postcard (Feldpostkarte) designed for the H. Bahlsen Keksfabrik, Hannover. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Walter Georgi, Engineers Building a Bridge, 1915. Color lithographic postcard (Feldpostkarte) designed for the H. Bahlsen Keksfabrik, Hannover. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Beginning in 1914, the German artist and Karlsruhe Academy professor Walter Georgi produced 24 patriotic Feldpostkarten for the Bahlsen cookie company in Hannover. In a postcard titled Engineers Building a Bridge (1915), a pair of strong-armed sappers set to work on a wooden trestle while a packet of Leibniz butter cookies dangle conspicuously alongside their work boots.

These engineering troops prepared the German military for the more static form of combat that followed the “Race to the Sea” in the fall of 1914; they dug and fortified trenches and bunkers, built bridges, and developed and tested new weapons — from mines and hand grenades to flamethrowers and, eventually, poison gas.

Georgi’s postcard designs for the Bahlsen company deploy the elegant color lithography he had practiced as a frequent contributor to the Munich Art Nouveau journal Jugend (see Die Scholle).In another Bahlsen postcard titled “Hold Out in the Roaring Storm” (1914), Georgi depicted a group of soldiers wearing the distinctive spiked helmets of the Prussian Army. Their leader calls out to his comrades with an open mouth, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and a square package of Leibniz Keks looped through his pinkie finger. In a curious touch that is typical of First World War German patriotic postcards, both the long-barreled rifles and the soldier’s helmets are festooned with puffy pink and carmine flowers.

These lavishly illustrated field postcards, designed by artists and produced for private industry, could be purchased throughout Germany and mailed, traded, or collected in albums to express solidarity with loved ones in active duty. The German government also issued non-pictorial Feldpostkarten to its soldiers as an alternate and officially sanctioned means of communication. For artists serving at the front, these 4” x 6” blank cards provided a cheap and ready testing ground at a time when sketchbooks and other materials were in short supply. The German painter Otto Schubert dispatched scores of elegant watercolor sketches from sites along the Western Front; Otto Dix, likewise, sent hundreds of illustrated field postcards to Helene Jakob, the Dresden telephone operator he referred to as his “like-minded companion,” between June 1915 and September 1918. These sketches (see Rüdiger, Ulrike, ed. Grüsse aus dem Krieg: die Feldpostkarten der Otto-Dix-Sammlung in der Kunstgalerie Gera, Kunstgalerie Gera 1991) convey details both minute and panoramic, from the crowded trenches to the ruined fields and landmarks of France and Belgium. Often, their flip sides contain short greetings or cryptic lines of poetry written in both German and Esperanto.

Dix enlisted for service in 1914 and saw front line action during the Battle of the Somme, in August 1916, one of the largest and costliest offensives of World War I that spanned nearly five months and resulted in casualties numbering more than one million. By September of 1918, the artist had been promoted to staff sergeant and was recovering from injuries at a field hospital near the Western Front. He sent one of his final postcard greetings to Helene Jakob on the reverse side of a self-portrait photograph, in which he stands with visibly bandaged legs and one hand resting on his hip. Dix begins the greeting in Esperanto, but quickly shifts to German to report on his condition: “I’ve been released from the hospital but remain here until the 28th on a course of duty. I’m sending you a photograph, though not an especially good one. Heartfelt greetings, your Dix.” Just two months later, the First World War ended in German defeat.

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22. A conversation with Alodie Larson, Editor of Grove Art Online

We are delighted to present a Q&A with the Editor of Grove Art Online, Alodie Larson. She began at Oxford last June, coming from JSTOR, where she spent four years as part of their editorial team, acquiring new journals for the archive. In the below interview, you’ll get to know Alodie as Editor, and also learn her thoughts on art history research and publishing. You can also find her Letter from the Editor on Oxford Art Online.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

When I was young, I would draw house plans (with elevations in the shape of animals) and make artwork with whatever I could find. In college, I studied architecture and the history of art; I completed my MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art, focusing on the architecture of Georgian England. Afterward, I moved to New York and lived in a comically small apartment with my brilliant friend who studied with me in London. She worked at Christie’s, and she kept me from straying too far from the art world while I worked at Random House. I began in the audio/digital department and later moved to the children’s division; I was lucky to learn from talented editors who were generous with their time. I became intimately familiar with Louis L’Amour novels, and I read Twilight when it was a stack of 8 ½ x 11 copy paper. I joined JSTOR in 2009, where I managed their list of journals in art and architecture. I contributed to a project to digitize a group of rare art journals like 291 and The Crayon, as well as to an effort to build a database of historical auction catalogs, all of which JSTOR made freely available along with their other content in the public domain. I also worked on business and sociology, which helped me to appreciate how research methods differ between disciplines. I am delighted to be here at Oxford as the steward of the Grove Dictionary of Art. In my free time I like to travel, visit museums, go to the opera, and refinish furniture. I am still somewhat disappointed that my current house plan is not shaped like a giraffe.

What is your favorite piece of art, of all time, and why?

I love Bernini’s David – the artist’s skill and inventiveness make this sculpture a singularly perfect object. In Bernini’s hands, marble seems to melt, as if it could be smoothed and stretched to his design. Grove’s biography explains this gift: “He felt that one of his greatest achievements was to have made marble appear as malleable as wax and so, in a certain sense, to have combined painting and sculpture into a new medium, one in which the sculptor handles marble as freely as a painter handles oils or fresco.” Unlike Michelangelo’s calm, anticipatory David, Bernini’s figure projects determination and energy. His body twists in motion, and as you circle him, you feel you are both being wound up together. I leave this sculpture feeling as if I have been flung out of the gallery, propelled by his purposeful strength.

David stands in my favorite museum, the Galleria Borghese, which adds to its grandeur as it is the original location intended for the sculpture. In the early 17th< century, Cardinal Scipione Borghese oversaw construction of the building—then the Villa Borghese—and commissioned David as well as a number of other stellar works from Bernini including Apollo and Daphne and Pluto and Proserpina. I relish seeing these sculptures in the magnificent home of Scipione’s original collection.

NLW Larson

Galleria Borghese, Rome. Photo courtesy of the Alodie Larson.

Since it’s impossible to get someone with an art background to answer this question briefly, I must add that I also particularly admire the work of Eduard Vuillard, Mark Rothko, Grant Wood, James Turrell, William Morris, Daniel Burnham, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Franz Kline, Xu Bing, and McKim, Mead & White. Closer to home, I have two favorite works of art that belong to me. The first is a watercolor sketch of Piccadilly Circus that I bought at a market in the courtyard of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. With minimal strokes it evokes the London crossroads on a rainy night in the late 50s (back when Gordon’s Gin and Wrigley’s Chewing Gum took up prime real estate in the neon collage).

Piccadilly_Circus_in_London_1962_Brighter

Piccadilly Circus in London, 1962. Photo by Andrew Eick. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

The second is a watercolor illustration of “Dradpot the Inverted Drool” drawn by my grandfather, Max V. Exner. He devoted his life to music but was a terrific artist as well, and our family lore has it that he was offered a job with Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s when a member of the company saw him doodling in a restaurant.

Also, in a beautiful, financially responsible future, I will have enough disposable income to buy an original work by David Shrigley. I urge him to try to become less famous so that I can afford this.

What is your favorite article in Grove Art Online?

I’m grateful that this role allows me to learn about artists I’ve never studied, and my favorite articles to read are those on subjects with which I’m not particularly familiar. Our forthcoming update includes new biographies on an outstanding group of contemporary artists from Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa, which I have enjoyed.

I am partial to the articles written by some of my favorite architectural historians, particularly Leland M. Roth, whose Understanding Architecture (1993) is, I think, one of the most engaging introductory texts. His Grove article on the urban development of Boston gives a great overview of the subject. I also like David Watkin’s article on Sir John Soane. An excellent summary of Soane’s life and work, it is an absorbing narrative with entertaining flourishes. (“Despite Soane’s high professional standing, his idiosyncratic style was often ridiculed by contemporaries in such phrases as ‘ribbed like loins of pork’.”) I have always admired Soane’s work and his unconventional museum.

The breakfast parlour at Sir John Soane's Museum as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1864

The breakfast parlour at Sir John Soane’s Museum as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1864. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What are some of the challenges of transitioning art history resources to an online environment?

Together, Grove and Benezit contain over 200,000 entries and images, and it is a challenge to organize that much information online in a clear, intuitive way that ensures researchers will find the articles they need. Many Grove entries first appeared in the print publication, The Dictionary of Art, and the article titles weren’t designed to fit well with modern keyword searches. Important essays can be buried within several layers of subheadings in long articles, sometimes with only date ranges as section titles. For a print work, it makes sense; you’d want all of the articles on a topic or region to be gathered together and located within the same physical volume. However, in an online environment, ideal heading structure would aid successful keyword matches and avoid cumbersomely long entries.

Despite the challenges, an online environment offers more powerful research options. Both Grove and Benezit are organized under a robust taxonomy, and this information allows users to narrow content by categories such as art form, location, or period. Rich search functionality and linking helps users to move between topics more swiftly than print research would permit. An online environment also allows our resource to respond quickly to new developments. We constantly update and expand the body of articles in our encyclopedia (though updates are not instantaneous, as our content is peer-reviewed, supervised by our distinguished Editorial Board and Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Nicola Courtright).

Oxford Art Online hosts thousands of images. Are there any challenges in hosting these on the site?

Yes, as with our articles, the volume of objects presents a challenge. Grove Art contains over 7,000 images, including many well-known artworks that would be discussed as part of an introductory survey course. Keyword searches usually connect researchers with the images relevant to their work, but we’re working to develop more powerful tools with which to both search and view images.

Obtaining image permissions can also be a challenge, but we are grateful for our partnerships with organizations like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Resource, Bridgeman Art Library, and the National Gallery of Art, which have brought a rich group of images to GroveBenezit, too, benefits from important partnerships with the Frick Art Reference Library and ArtistSignatures.com, which provide thousands of artists’ portraits and signatures on Oxford Art Online.

How do you envision art history research being done in 20 years?

I believe research in art history will become more collaborative, interdisciplinary, and international. Art libraries have undertaken enormously useful digitization projects, making objects in their collections available to scholars in far flung locations. I’m impressed with primary source projects like the collaboration between the Met and the Frick libraries to digitize the exhibition materials of the Macbeth Gallery, and Yale’s Blue Mountain Project, which digitized a collection of avant-garde art, music, and literary periodicals from 1848-1923. A number of other university libraries have excellent digital collections for art research, including the University of Washington, the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin, and Columbia University, which hosts the addictively interesting Robert Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery.

Courtesy of The Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Courtesy of The Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Whether through local collections or collaborative projects like the HathiTrust, JSTOR, and the DPLA, libraries and publishers are bringing a terrific breadth of important materials online. As content becomes more accessible, I think researchers will select online resources based on the caliber of their material and on the functionality provided the platform. Even as publishers’ brands may fall further behind the façade of library discovery services, I believe scholars will continue to value sources they can trust to maintain high standards of quality.

Art has always been an interdisciplinary field, involving history, politics, economics, and cultural exchange. In the coming years, I think it will be important to emphasize how art connects with these other fields. With the current national focus on careers in science and technology, art is sometimes cast as an academic luxury, but it is not. Its study involves issues fundamentally relevant to all of us. In the words of Albert Einstein: “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom.”

Alodie Larson is the Editor of Grove Art and Oxford Art Online. Before joining Oxford, she studied the architecture of Georgian England at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and worked for Random House and JSTOR.

Libraries are a vital part of our communities. They feed our curiosity, bolster our professional knowledge, and provide a launchpad for intellectual discovery. In celebration of these cornerstone institutions, we are offering unprecedented free access to our Online Resources, including Oxford Art Online, in the United States and Canada to support our shared mission of education.

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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23. Leonardo da Vinci myths, explained

By Kandice Rawlings


Leonardo da Vinci was born 562 years ago today, and we’re still fascinated with his life and work. It’s no real mystery why – he was an extraordinary person, a genius and a celebrity in his own lifetime. He left behind some remarkable artifacts in the form of paintings and writings and drawings on all manner of subjects. But there’s much about Leonardo we don’t know, making him susceptible to a number myths, theories, and entertaining but inaccurate representations in popular culture. The following are some of my favorites.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_presumed_self-portrait_-_WGA12798

Leonardo da Vinci, Presumed Self Portrait, circa 1512. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Myth #1 – Leonardo was gay.

Leonardo’s possible homosexuality is one of the more prevalent – and more plausible – myths circulating about the artist, and has the backing of none other than Sigmund Freud. There’s no way of knowing Leonardo’s sexual orientation for sure, but he isn’t known to have had romantic relationships with any women, never married, and in 1476 was accused (but later cleared) of charges of sodomy – then a capital crime in Florence. Scholars’ opinions on the issue fall along a spectrum between “maybe” and “very probably”.

Conclusion: Maybe true.

Myth #2 – Leonardo wrote backward to keep his ideas secret, and his notebooks weren’t “decoded” until long after his death.

For all his skill, Leonardo was not a prolific painter – the major part of his surviving output is in the form of his notebooks filled with theoretical and scientific writings, notes, and drawings. His strange habit of writing backward in these notebooks has been used to perpetuate the image of the artist as a mysterious, secretive person. But in fact it’s much more likely that Leonardo wrote this way simply because he was left-handed, and found it easier to write across the page from right to left and in reverse. No decoding is necessary – just a mirror. Leonardo’s theoretical writings and other notes were preserved by his follower and heir Francesco Melzi, and were widely known, at least in artistic circles, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Published extracts began appearing in 1651.

Conclusion: False.

Myth #3 – Leonardo put “secret” codes and symbols in his works.

I’d rather not get into all the problems with The Da Vinci Code too much, but I have to credit this 2003 book, by renowned author Dan Brown, for a lot of these theories. Aside from the fact that the book is full of factual errors (example: Leonardo’s “hundreds of Vatican commissions,” which actually number in the vicinity of zero) and twists the historical record, its readings of Leonardo’s artworks are based on some fundamentally flawed conceptions about the making, meaning, and purpose of art in the Italian Renaissance. In Leonardo’s world, paintings like the Last Supper in Milan were made according to patrons’ requirements, with very specific Christian meanings to be conveyed. Despite Leonardo’s artistic innovations, the content of his religious paintings and portrayal of religious figures (with the exception of some details in an altarpiece from the 1480s) were not untraditional.

Conclusion: False.

396px-Mona_Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, between 1503-1505. Louvre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Myth #4 – The Mona Lisa is a self-portrait/male lover in disguise/woman with high cholesterol.

Martin Kemp has observed, “The silly season for the Mona Lisa never closes.” The ridiculous theories about this painting abound. Here’s what we can say with reasonable certainty: Leonardo started the painting, probably a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, a merchant’s wife, while in Florence around 1503. For unknown reasons, he didn’t deliver it to the patron, however, and it ended up in the possession of his workshop assistant Salai (who some think was Leonardo’s lover – again, without evidence). There’s no reason to think that Leonardo recorded in this painting his own features or those of Salai, even if, as many art historians believe, he continued to work on the painting after he left Florence for Milan and then France. In a theory that deviates from the usual speculation about the identity of the sitter, an Italian scientist thinks that the way Leonardo portrayed the sitter shows she had high cholesterol. Right, because Renaissance paintings are straightforward, scientific images, pretty much just like MRIs and X-rays.

Conclusion: False.

Myth #5 – Leonardo made the image of Christ on the Shroud of Turin.

The Shroud of Turin is a relic purported to be the shroud that Christ’s body was buried in after the Crucifixion. According to its legend, the image of his body was miraculously transferred to the cloth when he was resurrected. The idea that Leonardo forged it depends on claims that the proportions of Christ’s face as depicted on the shroud match those in a drawing that is thought to be a self-portrait by the artist, and that Leonardo devised a photographic process that transferred the image of his face to the shroud. The fact that the shroud dates to at least the mid-14th century, a hundred years before Leonardo’s birth, just makes this already kooky theory even harder to buy. I’ll admit, though, that I haven’t read the whole book explaining it … and I’m not going to.

Conclusion: False.

Myth #6 – Leonardo was a vegetarian.

Vegetarianism would have been pretty unthinkable in Renaissance Italy (and veganism just plain absurd); people probably ate about as much meat as they could afford. The most commonly cited quote used to back up this claim is taken from a novel (see p. 227) and often misattributed to Leonardo himself. None of Leonardo’s own writings or early biographies mentions any unconventional eating habits. There’s really only one documentary source that might be relevant, a letter written by a possible acquaintance of the artist, who compares Leonardo to people in India who don’t eat meat or allow others to harm living things. Pretty tenuous, but vegetarians love to claim him.

Conclusion: Probably false.

Myth #7 – Leonardo invented bicycles, helicopters, submarines, and parachutes.

It’s true that Leonardo was fascinated with mechanics, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, flight, and military engineering, which he touted in his famous letter to Ludovico Sforza seeking a position at the court of Milan. Leonardo’s notebooks contain many designs for machines and devices related to these explorations. But these were, for the most part, probably not ideas that Leonardo considered thoroughly enough to actually build and demonstrate. In the case of the bicycle, the drawing was likely made by someone else, and might even be a modern forgery.

Conclusion: Not so much.

Leonardo_Design_for_a_Flying_Machine,_c._1488

Leonardo da Vinci, Design for a Flying Machine, 1488. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Myth #8 – Leonardo built robots.

While it sounds nutty, this one’s not so far off the mark, if you consider automatons – mechanical devices that seem to move on their own – to be robots. In a plot line of the cable fantasy drama Da Vinci’s Demons, Leonardo constructs a flying mechanical bird to dazzle the crowds gathered in the Cathedral piazza for Easter. A reliable historical record instead points to a lion that Leonardo made for the King of France’s triumphal entry into Milan in 1509. One observer’s description reads:

When the King entered Milan, besides the other entertainments, Lionardo da Vinci, the famous painter and our Florentine, devised the following intervention: he represented a lion above the gate, which, lying down, got onto its feet when the King came in, and with its paw opened up its chest and pulled out blue balls full of gold lilies, which he threw and strewed about on the ground. Afterwards he pulled out his heart and, pressing it, more gold lilies came out … Stopping beside this spectacle, [the King] liked it and took much pleasure in it.

Wow.

Conclusion: True.

If you’re interested in learning more about Leonardo, including the current locations of his works, read his biography from the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, or, for a longer treatment, pick up the accessible but smart book by leading expert Martin Kemp.

Kandice Rawlings is Associate Editor of Oxford Art Online and the Benezit Dictionary of Artists. She holds a PhD in art history from Rutgers University.

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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24. Illustrating a graphic history: Mendoza the Jew

By Liz Clarke


The illustration of a graphic history begins with the author’s script. There are two aspects to turning that script into artwork. It’s both a story, calling for decisions to be made about the best way to present the narrative visually, and a history, rooted in fact and raising questions about what the places and people (and their furniture and transportation and utensils) would actually have looked like.

conceptsketch

A sketch of Esther Mendoza, wife of Daniel Mendoza. Courtesy of Liz Clarke. Used with permission.

It’s unlikely that we’ll find perfect answers to all of these questions, particularly in a pre-photography age like the late 18th century, when Daniel Mendoza was at the height of his boxing career. Some subjects offer a wealth of images. Some, like a number of the places Mendoza frequented in London, still exist today. I was able to work from current photographs of locations including Mendoza’s house in Paradise Row, the cemetery where he is buried, and the exterior of the White Hart Inn. We had several images of Mendoza himself to refer to, thanks to his celebrity status. We knew what he looked like at different points in his life, how tall he was and how much he weighed. We knew about his fighting style from newspaper reports, artwork, and from his own instructional writing.

However, other subjects may not have been recorded in an image or even in a written description at the time. If records were made, they may not have survived. This means we have to cast the net wider. There are many sources of general information available that allow a lateral approach — records of people and places with shared characteristics, surviving artefacts and garments, artwork and documents from the time. There was nothing definite to work from in the case of Mendoza’s wife Esther, but we could ask what a woman like Mendoza’s wife would have looked like. How would a woman similar in age, class, and religion to Esther have dressed and worn her hair? We could then blend fact and imagination to arrive at a concept sketch of Esther, which allowed us to agree on how we would depict her.

processsteps

A page from Mendoza the Jew, showing the process from the sketch stage to the final piece. Courtesy of Liz Clarke. Used with permission.

Once we have enough information, each page is planned in detail. I’ll decide on the composition of the whole page, and of the contents of each panel on the page. There are choices to make about viewpoint (for example, if the scene is going to be presented from a low angle, looking up at it, or a high angle, looking down on it, which creates two very different effects), how to draw attention to the pivotal point in the scene, the characters’ body language and expressions, if they aren’t already defined by the script, and how to convey the themes of the book. This layout sketch is the most important stage in the illustration of a page.

Once the author has approved the sketch, I draw it in ink as line art and prepare this to be coloured digitally. Colour and the nature and direction of the light can also contribute to the storytelling. For example, the desaturated colours at the beginning of an exchange between Mendoza and Humphries, when Mendoza is not at his best, gradually become brighter and warmer by the end of the scene, as their verbal sparring restores Mendoza’s fighting spirit. The text comprising the narrative and dialogue is added to the art, and text boxes and speech bubbles are fitted to it. For Mendoza the Jew, we decided to use three different fonts. Two fonts with some resemblance to typefaces from the time period represented quotes from Mendoza’s autobiography and from a newspaper report of Mendoza’s match against Humphries in Doncaster, distinguishing the author’s words from Mendoza’s, and those of the reporter.

As an artist, illustrating a graphic history, as opposed to a work of fiction, has some unique rewards as well as challenges. There’s an awareness that these were real individuals and events, and it always feels like a privilege to be telling their stories.

Liz Clarke is an illustrator based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her artwork has appeared in magazines, games and books, including Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R. Getz and Mendoza the Jew, Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History by Ronald Schechter.

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25. Window into the last unknown place in New York City

New York City, five boroughs boasting nine million people occupying an ever-expanding concrete  jungle. The industrial hand has touched almost every inch of the city, leaving even the parks over manicured and uncomfortably structured. There is, however, a lesser known corner  that has been uncharacteristically left to regress to its natural state. North Brother Island, a small sliver of land situated off the southern coast of the Bronx, once housed Riverside Hospital, veteran housing, and ultimately a drug rehabilitation center for recovering heroin addicts. In the 1960s the island, once full with New Yorkers, became deserted and nature has been slowly swallowing the remaining structures ever since. Christopher Payne, the photographer behind North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, was able to access the otherwise prohibited to the public island, and document the incredible phenomenon of the gradual destruction of man’s artificial structures.



North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City: Photographs by Christopher Payne, A History by Randall Mason, and Essay by Robert Sullivan (A Fordham University Press Publication). Christopher Payne, a photographer based in New York City, specializes in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. Trained as an architect, he has a natural interest in how things are purposefully designed and constructed, and how they work. Randall Mason is Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He worked previously at the Getty Conservation Institute, University of Maryland, and Rhode Island School of Design. Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands: WildernessAdventures at the Edge of a CityRats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted InhabitantsThe Thoreau You Don’t Know: The Father of Nature Writers on the Importance of Cities, Finance, and Fooling AroundA Whale Hunt, and, most recently, My American Revolution. His stories and essays have been published in magazines such asNew YorkThe New Yorker, and A Public Space. He is a contributing editor to Vogue.

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