Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Here is a nifty article at the Smart Set, via the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (how appropriate!).

The aesthetic movement Steampunk wants to bring the wonder back into our relationship with machines. Its tack is to fully embrace (and affect) an Edwardian orientation to the world. Though Steampunk has been a growing cultural trend for a few decades, it really came into its own in the aughts and is now a full-fledged phenomenon. Steampunks dress like the Wright Brothers and Arctic explorers. They write alternate history fantasies in which alien clones ride around in dirigibles by the light of gas lamps. Steampunks are fascinated by mechanics, and Steampunk art, jewelry, and fashion often involve gears, wheels, pulleys, and, of course, steam: a laptop computer fused with a rickety typewriter; an arcade game redesigned to look like a mini-submarine. What most defines Steampunk as a culture, however, is attitude. The “punk” in Steampunk confronts technology's alienating qualities with messy DIY defiance. The “steam” (besides its literal connotations) is almost like another word for magic: brute, utilitarian contraptions powered by clouds, and breath — ephemeral energy.

Steampunk tries to capture that Edwardian moment when steam power still ruled and the romance of technology lay precisely in the line it toed between destruction and possibility. Equally fascinated by flying machines and trench warfare, Steampunk is both optimistic and nihilistic. I like to think of this attitude as Gleehilism. It's this Gleehilism that makes Steampunk one of the defining aesthetic movements of the early 21st century.
Image: Extraordinary gentlemen/woman.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

A great Canadian work of art

I have said elsewhere that I am a sucker for great ephemeral works of art, for instance (some) Olympic opening ceremonies.

Last night's pagentry was not perfect, but it had perfect moments.

My first reaction, sparked by the beginning act featuring representatives of First Nations, was to think, almost seriously:

"I hear that Jack Vance is blind, but I have a feeling he may have scripted this anyway. He sees things more vividly with his inner eye than most of us with the outer ones."

But really it was better than that; not the creation of a 92-year-old American I admire very much, but of much younger Canadians I don't know with dazzling technical skills and first-class creative ideas. And performers who could dance energetically for an hour straight! And fly!

Even if you saw it on TV, you owe it to yourself to see the Big Picture presentation, to remind you, and see details you might have missed.

Image: One of those perfect moments. I had a hard time choosing.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Detroit Industry, a mural by Diego Rivera

Back when I was teaching introductory world history, I became aware that Diego Rivera -- the early 20th century artist and social critic, the man whose huge murals of the Spanish conquest of Mexico probably formed everybody's image of those events and especially what the Aztec looked like (at second or third hand if not directly)-- had some of his work in the Detroit Institute of Art. Somehow I got the idea that it might have been some version of his Mexican historical work.

Well, today I was at the DIA and found out how wrong I was. Diego Rivera was in Detroit in 1932-3, and while he was there he was commissioned by the Ford heir, Edsel Ford, to do original work right on the walls of an interior court built specially for that purpose. It is a depiction Detroit Industry, showing its power, its dynamism, its potential for evil as well as good. What's haunting about the murals are the occasional appearances of warplanes, men in gas masks, and the production of poison gas bombs.

This is an amazing piece of art, and I bet next to no one knows about it anymore. There are lots of pictures on the web, including some posted by the Institute itself, but there's no substitute for seeing this kind of large-scale art in person. I gasped when I first saw it.

At the top of this post, is one small section of the mural which I think comes across fairly well at the scale at which you're going to see it. It shows workers in the foreground being observed by both men and women in dressier clothes. The observers have rather sour expressions on their faces. My theory is that the noise is probably overpowering. Or are they repulsed for some other reason?

I am rather surprised that the generally conservative Ford family patronized Diego Rivera. They must have thought he was the next thing to a communist. I mean, have a look at this (On a communist site yet.) Even the Detroit Industry murals show no sympathy for the captains of industry.

By the way, I should point out that the Detroit Institute of Art has mountains of good stuff in a very impressive building, right downtown in what might be called the museum district of Detroit.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

We can have pictures of winter

It's not very wintry in Windsor, Ont., but we can have pictures of ice and cold.

Above you should see an ice scupture at the Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, as featured on Jim Wright's Stonekettle Station, quite a nice blog.

And following this link you can see "hair ice" which forms on dead wood in certain conditions. I've got dead wood all over my North Bay area property, but I've never seen this.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Fun with ice in Switzerland

For once, this is not the Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China. See this and more at the Fire and Ice portfolio at the Big Picture.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Some early art history -- in process

It has been a while since I blogged anything on the Stone Age. To remedy this terrible lack, let me link to a post from Judith Weingarten at Zenobia: Empress of the East on some recent research about who created some of the famous Stone Age cave paintings. She likes the idea that women -- and kids -- helped create some of the earliest surviving art, but points out that there are some yet-unanswered questions about this specific argument, which depends on the different proportions between the 2nd and 4th fingers seen in men and women (2D:4D):
Until recently, according to Pennsylvania State University archaeologist, Dean Snow, most scientists assumed these prehistoric hand prints were male. But, he says, "even a superficial examination of published photos suggested ... that there were lots of female hands there."

Looking at some stencilled hands, Snow could see that "The very long ring finger on the left is a dead give-away for male hands. The one on the right has a long index finger and a short pinky -- thus very feminine."

To assess prehistoric hand-prints from European caves, Snow used modern hands for comparison. "I had access to lots of people of European descent who were willing to let me scan their hands as reference data," said Snow.

By carefully measuring and analysing the Pech Merle hand stencils, Snow found that many were indeed female -- as, for example, those in the 'spotted horse' picture (above). And so he concludes, "We don't know what the roles of artists were in Upper Paleolithic society generally. But it's a step forward to be able to say that a strong majority of them were women."

I hate to be a party pooper but...

this begs three questions.

First, and to my mind most serious, is:

How do we know that today's 2D:4D finger ratio was the same for the early modern humans who painted the caves?
More from Judith here. A good example of how research often progresses by asking lots of simple questions, and not being too quickly satisfied with the first few answers.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Cosmic truth?

Someone sent me a link to this painting by James Christensen, Michael the Archangel Battles the Dragon While Almost Nobody Pays Attention.
That's exactly how it works. Nobody is paying attention to the vital, heroic struggle. One can just hope there is a hero out there, fighting and winning. How Michael Moorcock! How Gene Wolfe!

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Alex Andreev's "Hermetic Art"

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ottawa: a northern capital comes of age

Long ago there was a story going around -- in the typical style of Canadian self-disparagement -- that Ottawa was known in the international diplomatic corps as one of the bleakest places to be posted. Given the refined tastes that most diplomats would like to indulge, the story may well have been true. Ottawa was a pretty ordinary place, and colder than most.

Whatever the truth of the story, it can hardly be true today. The place has grown, diversified its economy, and generated a lot of the neat things a good city should have, and some of the institutions that capitals generally support. And early June is a pretty wonderful time to see its green river valleys.

I often go to Ottawa to visit friends, and don't have a chance to just enjoy the city. But this past weekend I went to visit the city, and among other things saw a big flashy public institution, the National Gallery of Canada. All the big Ottawa museums have been rehoused in the last quarter century -- I've joked that they explain the deficits of the Trudeau-Mulrony years. Despite the fact that the "new" NGC was finished in 1988, this is the first time I've been inside it.

We got our money's worth on this one. There are some good collections here, but the building itself by Moses Safdie would be worth visiting -- a shorter visit, maybe -- if it were empty.

I've been to the Museum of Civilization -- also a fine building; next trip, perhaps the War Museum. I'm only about 2 years late on that one.

Image: "Maman" (Mama) by Louise Bourgeoise, outside the NGC.

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