Archive for November, 2008

“Provenance is Everything”: Restitution of Plundered Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved

Henri Matisse, Paysage, Le Mur Rose, 1898,
oil on canvas

On Monday Le Figaro reported that the Centre Pompidou, after holding the above Matisse painting for 60 years, would be donating it to the original owner’s legitimate heir, Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross). “Le Mur Rose” is not a Matisse masterpiece; it lacks the bold color, decorative motifs, and flat spatial elements that characterize the artist’s best “modernist” work. Nevertheless, the painting has been tinged with notoriety by the truly gruesome details of its journey. The story’s wide syndication in the American press on Tuesday reminds us that, despite six decades, the fires of public interest in the issue of restitution of artwork looted by the Nazis from Jewish collections still burn quite brightly.

Art has been subject to plunder for centuries. During one of his invasions of Italy, Napoleon brought home to France a hoard of masterpieces that still adorn the walls of the Louvre. Between 1801-1805 Lord Elgin shipped to England the celebrated marble carvings from the Acropolis in Athens with permission from the Ottoman court. Aurel Stein and a host of other 19th-century archeologists liberated tens of thousands of the ancient treasures of Central Asia.

Art theft is a robust business today; Various sources estimate the value of stolen artwork to be between $6-$11 billion annually. No ancient or modern heist, audacious though some have been, compares in magnitude to rigorous institutionalized theft the Nazis engineered in Europe between the years 1940 and 1944. Through highly-organized bureaucratic efforts, millions of objects were removed from their rightful places, catalogued, transported and stored (in salt mines and castles) in preparation for the glorious cultural debut of the Third Reich.

In addition to usurping the collections of fleeing or deported Jews, Nazi officials of all ranks picked off art and artifacts throughout the unprotected or unsuspecting museums of Europe. They took objects from not just the vanquished countries like France and Holland, but also from their ally Italy. By some reckonings nearly 1/5 of all the known artwork in Europe ended up in Nazi hands. The plundering of cultural property was such a priority for the Nazis, that it became one of the other key charges against them at the Nürnberg trials.

Of course, one of the ironies of history is that as a young man Hitler was desperate to be a serious artist. From his existing work, we know that he was technically accomplished, but creatively uninspired. If only he’d been blessed with greater artistic vision. Apparently, he and Göring together often flipped through the many albums of photographs that documented the stolen works. One imagines that in these moments Der Kunstler-Führer reveled in the pure joy of aesthetic beauty of the works, while Der Despot-Führer summarily suppressed all moral responsibility.

Once in Adolf Hitler’s “collection”: Jan Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668,
oil on canvas, 19 3/8 x 17 3/4 inches

Today cultural institutions are faced with a myriad of complicated issues involving legitimate claims by heirs of the original Jewish collectors, not to mention the moral and ethical questions that surround the looting and resale of antiquities. Social, cultural and legal entities continue to struggle to set standards that respect private ownership and public enjoyment, chart the middle ground between national and international heritage, and wrestle with reasonable statute of limitation cutoffs. Progress is being made.

One wishes for solutions that encourage the preservation of artwork in public view.

Wider Connections

Details, Le Mur Rose

The Rape of Europa—PBS’ gripping documentary on Nazi pillage of artworks from all over Europe and Allied restitution efforts

“What would you decide?” —The Jewish Museum (Berlin)’s online restitution game

Provenance of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bauer-Bloch (now at the Neue Galerie, New York)

Albert Rosenberg and the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg

Interpol—Recently reported stolen

Stolen —Documentary on the Gardner Museum heist

The English Assassin

Stolen Art of the Holocaust at the Israel Museum

Creative Food Play: Adventures With Buddha’s Hand

Posted in Food, Liz Hager with tags , on November 24, 2008 by Liz Hager


buddhas-handBuddha’s Hand. Photo ©2008 Liz Hager

Over the weekend, while in the process of hunting and gathering in the gargantuan fruit section of my favorite market, I had noticed a middle-aged woman lingering in the vicinity of my shopping cart. As I returned to the cart and attempted to reach for its bar, thinking it was somehow blocking her way, she accosted me. “What do you do with THAT?” she asked, pointing to the yellow, squid-like fruit whose tentacles were peeking up among the bags of pears and apples. I saw no reason to lie. “I have no idea,” I grinned. “I’m using it for a photo project.”

Fortunately my traveling companion for the day was Tia, who is an expert on all sorts of food. Turns out, this thing—this Buddha’s Hand, aka citroncedraCitrus medica var.sarcodactylusis an ancient relative of the lemon. It has the rind of a lemon but not the pulp. It’s used in Asian cultures to freshen rooms. In the Western world, outside of a few daring chefs, who use it raw, it’s mostly used for making candied fruit. Those little cubes of succade in fruit cakes? Some of them originated from the rind of this strange-looking life form.

Armed with that knowledge, I put the Buddha’s Hand out of my mind as a reliable food source.

A day later, however, my penurious nature got the better of me. How wasteful to throw out the carcass after the photo shoot! Nature had designed something more beautiful than any human could have invented—a fruit with gorgeously gnarled fingers. Think of the presentation possibilities. The ooo-ahh factor spurred me on.

I consulted Tia. She attempted to instruct me on the details of preparing candied citron by phone. She went over the instructions a second time, making a few modifications.  I should have taken notes. I’m not a novice in the kitchen, but I absorb new concepts best visually through interactive watching. I hung up the phone, a bit fuzzy about the numerous and seemingly-complicated steps that would allow me to candy the fruit properly, while leaving the fingers whole. They are fairly thick, was our method going to cook them all the way through?

I consulted the internet. The scant recipes out there are all slightly different and none of them mention a way to do it so the fingers stay whole.

This afternoon I decided just not to worry about the whole thing. I cut into the fruit, running my knife along the grove that separates each finger. I carved out some of their pulp, but left the fingers whole.

Buddha's Hand

They’re in their third boiling bath. Stay tuned for results.

Wider Connections

Chris Minnick’s recipe

Carolyn Carter’s recipe

Sky Gyngell’s chocolate dipped recipe

Hangar One Buddha’s Hand vodka

Savory Recipes using Citron

Buy a Buddha’s Hand tree

How to Loose It

Posted in Fashion, Liz Hager, Pop Culture Miscellany, Textiles with tags , , on November 23, 2008 by Liz Hager


“How to Loose It,” Digital Illustration (©2008 Liz Hager)

As I fanned the Oxford pink sections of the weekend Financial Times across the breakfast island, I unexpectedly discovered an edition of the newspaper’s glossy monthly supplement How to Spend It nestled inside. A moment of confusion ensued. Normally this section arrives with the paper on the first Saturday of each month, but wasn’t Thanksgiving just around the corner?  A moment later the subhead registered—“how to spend it special celebration edition.”  Mystery solved, serious senior moment averted.  

It was thoughtful of the FT editors to issue an extra measure of cheer this holiday season. I mean this with all sincerity.  

I used to derive good amusement from the rag’s round up of über-glitz trends in European (mostly British) fashion and design. I used it as fodder for my design scrapbooks.  Inevitably, while perusing pages of the magazine, my initial scorn at its joyous touting of the chic accoutrements of the ultra-wealthy would end in unabashed admiration for much of the design aesthetic displayed on its pages. There was something to like in just about everything there. 

In a perverse way, How To Spend It convinced me that my own life, although a trickle-down version of the opulent lifestyle conjured up on its glossy pages, was still pretty darn good. 

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that my interest in the magazine grew more tepid with each passing month of disarray in the global markets and inexorablew rise in the unemployment rate. By the end of October, nearly 40% of my own savings had evaporated. Like everyone else, I was anxious. I found increasingly less delight in scrutinizing the design elements offered up by HTSI and became ever more obsessed with the obscene prices of things— “bespoke” (custom-made) stationery at £587 ($869.52), a Hermès pocket watch (£995/$1473.89), or Pippa Small’s yellow gold and Tibetan diamond ring for £14,600 ($21,803). All that came to mind was whether the people who bought these things before the meltdown were still buying them. Do the ultra-rich cut back in recessionary times? Do they “do without” (albeit on their own level) like the rest of us? I was downing in the myopia of money or, more accurately, the loss of my money.  I could no longer contemplate design for design’s sake. 

Something induced me peak inside the cover of this Saturday’s issue. Maybe it was the “special”-ness of it—a free gift during hard times—or perhaps it was the cover model’s dress with her Elsa Lancaster-like hair. Once inside, I found a lovely feature pronouncing “Velvet is Back,” and had a look at the dashboards of antique Aston Martins (the DB4 GT is valued at£1m+). Before I knew it, I had ripped out the review featuring the new Flip Mino.  

No doubt the path to collective economic recovery will be years in the making.  Despite this disheartening thought, there was a small seismic shift in my life yesterday. As a result I’m back to being a peeping Tom in the world of luxury design. I’m confident I will never purchase the vast majority of things promoted in HTSI, but the joy of design consumption has returned.            

In an odd way How to Spend It taught me how to loose it (money), and ultimately how to find it (the unhampered joy in beautiful things). Now that’s liberating.

Takla Makan Tartan

Posted in Central Asia, Fashion, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by Liz Hager



Assorted Scottish Tartans, digital illustration (©2008 Liz Hager)

Yesterday, under the headline “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To,” The New York Times offered an unusually long article on the subject of the Tarim Basin mummies. Although the mummies aren’t a new discovery, periodically they are revived author Edward Wong noted, “as protagonists in a very contemporary political dispute over who should control the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”  (For more on the conflict between ethnic minority Uighers and majority Han Chinese, see What’s in a Vowel?)

Sven Hedin was the first to unearth (although un-sand might be a better description) Tarim Basin mummies in the early 1900s near the oasis town of Loulan on the northern fringes of the Takla Makan desert. Without proper excavation equipment or transportation, Hedin had to leave the bodies in situ. They were largely forgotten until 1978, when Chinese archeologist Wang Binghua uncovered 113 bodies, while excavating a hillside.

In 1987 Chinese culture expert Victor Mair was one of the first Westerners to see them. He was astounded: “The Chinese said they were 3,000 years old, yet the bodies looked as if they were buried yesterday.” Ironically, it was the harsh conditions of the desert—the extreme temperatures and arid climate—which preserved the bodies in near pristine condition. Unfortunately, the altered condition of the “Loulan Beauty” (as evidenced in attached video) might cause one to wonder whether their above-ground environment has been a tad toxic for them.

The “Loulan Beauty”  (photo ©Gilles Sabrie)

Other than their condition, what really intrigued Mair (as a wider audience now knows thanks to the Times) was the mummies’ distinct Indo-European (i.e. Caucasoid) features and traces of reddish-blond hair. Could these people be Europeans? DNA marker testing hasn’t settled the matter definitively, and experts continue to debate all manner of topics relating to the origin and culture of these mysterious people.  One thing is clear, however: the mummies would seem to refute the claim, long-held by the Chinese, that they were the first people to settle the area.

For textile lovers there was one additional intriguing detail in the story—microscopic examination of their clothes revealed fibers not of wool, but of the outer hair of goat, which had been elaborately dyed green, blue, and brown, and woven in a twill pattern, otherwise known as tartan.

Generally speaking, twill weaves are produced by crossing the weft (horizontal) threads over and under multiple warp (vertical) threads. It yields a softer and more wrinkle-resist cloth than plain weave (over on, under one). In tartans, the pattern of colored threads is repeated through both the weft (vertical) and warp threads to form a cloth of interlocking squares.


Various Twills (illustration ©Christina Martin)

Tartan is an ancient weave, dating back at least 5,000 years. In addition to the Tarim graves, it has been found in the salt-mine graves of Hallstatt peoples in the Austrian Salzkammergut, where it has been dated to 1200 BCE. After making a detailed study of the Tarim basin mummy fabric, Elizabeth Barber concluded that it was strikingly similar to Celtic tartans in weave structure. She conjectured that the two shared a common origin in the Caucasus Mountains of Southern Russia and that quite possibly peoples had migrated out of the Caucasus in two waves, one west to Europe, the other east to Central Asia.

In the contemporary world tartan is most closely connected with the Highland clans of Scotland, although It is often mistakenly referred to as plaid. Plaide, from the Gaelic word for “blanket,”  is used specifically in the Scottish context to refer to a large length of material.  The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. But this is perhaps a subject for a later post.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Wayland Barber — The Mummies of Ürümchi

JH Mallory and Victor Mair—The Tarim Mummies

Aurel Stein’s 1910 photo of a Tarim Basin mummy

More mummies: Ötzi the Iceman

Matthew Newsom—Who Says Tartan is Just for Scots?

History of Scottish Tartan

Why We Love (Kae-Sa-Luk) Watermelon

Posted in Food, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2008 by Liz Hager


Kalaya Tonghcareon Paragas, “Thai-Styled Watermelon Carving” (photo © Saveur Magazine)

A few months ago the September issue of Saveur arrived on my doorstep. On its cover was emblazoned the confident tagline—”Why We Love Watermelon”—a pugnacious answer to an unbidden question. Personally, I prefer the more meaty varieties of melon, such as cantalope and honeydew. As a result, I had every intention of skipping the article. But that was before my eyes came to rest on a page-size resolution of a this watermelon carved to resemble a camilla, or perhaps a lotus?   

What a tour de force of ornamental embellishment! It caused me to turn back the pages and read this article on the global joys of watermelon.  Well, read superficially anyway. What hooked me, though was the following little tidbit from Saveur author Katherine Cancila—

In Thailand. . . the elaborate carving of watermelon and other fruits is a long-standing and respected tradition that dates to the 14th century, when the art evolved in the court of King Phra Ruang. Chefs for Thai nobility and royalty were expected to make food that was not only delicious but also beautiful, even fantastical. Today in Thailand, carved fruits and vegetables are presented as religious offerings, used as displays at weddings and banquets, and entered into judged competitions. 

As I discovered through additional digging, the carving of fruits and vegetables (Kae-Sa-Luk), has a long history in Thailand. Legend suggests that the tradition was created during Loi Kratong (Krathong), a popular festival during which Thais launch krathongs—banana leaf boats filled with incense, flowers and other offerings—as inducements for the water spirits to carry away their troubles. The story tells of one of the King’s (though not specifying which one) servants, alternately referred to as Nang Noppamart, Lady Nopphamat, and Thao Sichulalak, who, wishing to please the King, distinguished her krathong by carving beautiful flowers and birds from fruit.

Reality is no doubt more prosaic. Many believe the artform was adopted from the Chinese, although scholarly sources on the subject are difficult to find. It may well have originated, as Ms. Cancila suggests, under Phra Ruang, although this was not one king but a dynasty of kings, which ruled the in north-central Thailand from 1238-1368.  The dynasty is generally considered to be the forerunner of modern-day Thailand, because its first ruler, Phokhun Si Intharathit, led the rebellion against the Khmer regime that established the first independent Thai state.  The appellation of their kingdom—Sukhothai (Dawn of Happiness)—derives from the dynasty’s capital city. Today, Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage site; parenthetically UNESCO sites are always well-worth the visit.  In its short 100+ years, the Phra Ruang dysnasty successfully expanded its territory along the entire Chao Phraya River basin (to present-day Bangkok, situated at the delta of the river), and is credited with lasting influence on Thai culture and political custom. 

In her description above, Ms. Cancila may actually be referring to Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (Ramkhamhaeng the Great), the third king of the Phra Ruang dynasty, who ruled the Sukhothai from 1277-1317. Ramkhamhaeng is credited with establishing the Khmer-derived Thai alphabet, still in use today, and with promoting nascent Thai art forms, including painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and of course fruit & vegetable carving.

Kalaya’s other watermelon carvings

Kalaya is a 55-year-old Thai immigrant (she lives in Long Island, NY), who has been carving fruits and vegetables since her teens. 

Master Pam Maneeratana Carves a Pumpkin (and other things)

Vegetable and Fruit Carving Book

Indian Food Kitchen Blog

The Art of Thai Food Carving

Leigh Hyams: Standing Among Ghosts

Posted in Artists Speak, Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , on November 17, 2008 by Liz Hager

Each painting we make teaches us more about painting and more about what we DON’T know about painting. . . Occasionally we paint beyond our understanding and work comes out of us that’s different from anything we’ve done before. It may or may not be opening a door to a new way of working, but we must not automatically ‘judge’ it with the same set of parameters we’ve been using until then. Note its strangeness, its unfamiliarity and see what’s there to learn from it. We have to trust the creative process, knowing that with each drawing or painting we make with our whole hearts, our understanding of the richness and profundity of visual languge—non verbal language—will deepen. —Leigh Hyams, Attitudes

leighhyamsLeigh Hyams, Maya Pyramid, 2008,
charcoal and hibiscus on unstretched canvas, 84×55 inches
(Photo by the author)

In the pamphlet that accompanies Leigh Hyams’ new show —”The Ancient Presence” at Meridian Gallery (through 12/20/2008)—the painter admits that, while she found herself increasingly interested in Mayan history (as a result of having lived in Mexico over the past four years), she felt much trepidation in tackling the subject matter. Specifically, she questioned what she might have to say artistically about these city-sites that hadn’t already been said by other artists over the centuries.  Despite doubt, Hyams dove headlong into the project.

It is clear from the resulting paintings that the subject sunk deep hooks into Hyams. A pyramid may be the focal point of a painting, but it isn’t the point of the painting. These paintings testify to the energy that has been released in her, and which the paintings in turn release to us. It’s wholly different from the forces that conspired to produce her earlier work—the colorful flower paintings as an example.

leigh-hyams3 Leigh Hyams, Maya Sensor, 2008,
Charcoal and pastel on unstretched canvas
(©Meridian Gallery)

A turning point came for Hyams when she visited the remote site Yaxchilán along the Usumacinta River in Chiapas. It was an adventurous journey; the site is accessible pretty much only by boat. It’s not hard to imagine the cross-currents of emotion must have run through her onsite—astonishment at the majesty and sophistication of the pre-Columbian civilization; marvel at the scope of the work that uncovered these huge cities buried for centuries by the jungle; affection for the level of craftsmanship that produced the intricate embellishments;  awestruck by the connection to fellow human beings across the centuries.

Standing among ghosts is powerful.

leighhyams2Leigh Hyams, Mesopotamian Goddess 2000 BC,
pencil and watercolor on paper
(Courtesy of the artist)

On the second floor is a secondary exhibit of 20 or so watercolor sketches of Goddess statuettes Hyams has made over the years on her various travels.

Wider Connections

Interview with Hyams

Mayan Sites—A photographic tour

More Hyams—

A Seated Buddha from Tumshuk

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2008 by Liz Hager


seated-buddha-tumshuk-5th-cSeated Buddha, Tumshuk (Xinjiang Provence) 5th century,
Wood, approximately 6 1/3″ high

The end of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century CE ushered in three centuries of unrest in China and its Western territories.  After a series of weak Emperors, the Huns (“barbarians”) ruled for centuries, although reunification of the Northern and Southern Dynasties did not happen until the Sui Dynasty took power in 580. It was during these chaotic centuries that Buddhism established its foothold in China.  Under the aegis of Ashok the Great, Buddhism pushed north and east out of India, first into Central Asia, and from there east into China along the Silk Route.  Perhaps the Chinese embraced it for the stability it brought to their lives.

Buddhist monks established early outposts in the oasis towns of Central Asia—Kashgar, Khotan, Dunhuang, Turfan. During the 4th and 5th centuries these settlements grew into bustling centers of religion and commerce. Conversely, Chinese monks, seeking to study the Buddhist scriptures, passed through these towns en route to India. In the oases, cultural and artistic traditions—Buddhist, Chinese, Persian, Bactrian, Turkic tribes—mingled freely.  Some 1500 years later in the monastery caves outside these towns European archeologists Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq excavated the exquisite artifacts produced by unique Buddhist societies.

The 6-inch high treasure above was uncovered by Albert von Le Coq in the caves at Tumshuk (just east of Kashgar, now in Xinjiang Province, China). Statues of this type and small size are thought to have been votive offerings from pious Buddhists.

This Buddha assumes the classic dhyanasana position, a posture of meditation, in which the legs are locked in full-lotus position with the soles of the feet turned upwards so as to be visible. In unusual style, he wears a smooth and unwrinkled robe, and its lack of embellishment emphasizes the serenity of the pose. Traces of polychrome suggest that the sculpture was once entirely painted; the brilliant pigments of the various cave wall paintings suggest that the original colors of this Buddha would have been stunning.

In general form this seated Buddha displays attributes of the Gandharan style, in which Hellenistic or Greco-Roman artistic techniques (first brought to the Gandhara, now the borderlands of Afghanistan/Pakistan, by Alexander) blended with Indian Buddhist iconography. In keeping with their desire to depict the Buddha as a man, not a deity, Gandharan artists employed naturalistic modeling and realistic detail.

Similarly-dated artifacts of many different styles fill the caves; unfortunately this statue offers no clue as to the reason for its form. Did the sculptor bring artistic traditions with him from Gandhara to Tumshuk? Or did he become infatuated by the down-to-earth simplicity of another artifact?

There are many possibilities. Buddha does not reveal all secrets.

Wider Connections

The Silk Roads—an historical overview.
A Buddhist Library
Marilyn Rhie—Early Buddhist Art of China & Central Asia
Buddhist Art News
The Science of Meditation

The News That Fits

Posted in Liz Hager, Politics, Pop Culture Miscellany, Words & Symbols with tags , , on November 13, 2008 by Liz Hager


Yesterday on the streets of New York pedestrians were surprised to receive a special edition of The New York Times, free of charge.  The news on its pages seemed almost too good to be true. . . and it was. At least for now. 

Dated July 4, 2009, the front page of this New York Times blared out in four-column headlines an end to the Iraq War; reported on an apology by Condoleeza Rice for WMD scare; and announced that oil companies had been nationalized to fund climate initiatives.  Inside was coverage of the passage of the National Health Care Act, as well as the end of tortue and Gitmo. On the Editorial page Thomas Friedman came forth with his own mea culpa and a vow to put down his pen (and take up a screwdriver).  

Though humorous, this special edition doesn’t quite qualify as parody. Its independent editors were not mocking the Times, only imitating its content and style, to make a serious point. Stay involved.   A few paragraphs from embedded in their Editorial elaborate on this: 

The dozens of volunteer citizens who produced this paper spent the last eight years dreaming of a better world for themselves, their friends, and any descendants they might end up having. Today, that better world, though still very far away, is finally possible — but only if millions of us demand it, and finally force our government to do its job.

It certainly won’t be easy. Even now, corporate representatives are swarming over Washington to get their agendas passed. The energy giants are demanding “clean coal,” nuclear power and offshore drilling. Military contractors are pushing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. H.M.O.s and insurance companies are promoting bogus “reforms” so they can forestall universal health care. And they’re not about to take no for an answer.

But things are different this time. This time, we can hold accountable the politicians we put into office. And because everyone can now see that the “free market” has nothing to do with freedom, there is a huge opening to pass policies that can benefit all Americans, and that can make us truly free — free to pursue an education without debt, go on vacation every once in a while, keep healthy, and live without the crushing guilt of knowing what our tax dollars are doing abroad.

While the news reported in the 7/4/2009 edition may not qualify as “fit to print” in the legit paper, it is the news that fits the nation’s present mood. “Too good to be true, but not impossible to imagine” was one woman’s response to the paper. She reflected the majority sentiment of those who received the paper and, dare I say, of a lot of us who did not. 

The audacity of hope is still riding high. 


Leisurely Morning Read

PDF file

Online version


Cut to the chase—Venetian Red recommends

Court Indicts Bush on High Treason

Congress Passes Maximum Wage Law

Thomas Friedman op-ed

McCain Leads Charge to Humanize Corporations

Harvard Closes its Business School Doors

Out on the Street (videos)


Work for Change  The Fine Print

Links Beyond

The Gothamist—behind the Scenes at the Hoax

Strandbeesten: Art Meets Darwin

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on November 11, 2008 by Liz Hager

Dutchman Theo Jansen (born 1948) grew up near the beach.  He studied physics at the University of Delft, but left the University in 1975 to become an artist. Fortunately,  he wasn’t quite able to leave physics behind. Jansen created several novel inventions in the 80s, including a flying saucer that emitted sound & light and a light sensitive mechanical spray-gun capable of painting photographic quality images on surfaces.

In 1990 he found his life’s work—creating kinetic sculptures that “walk” by harnessing windpower. Curiously, they resemble giant Jurassic skeletons come to life, which isn’t so strange, once you understand that biology has been Jansen’s inspiration. More specifically, the process of genetic selection suggested to Jansen that constantly-evolving forms could be created from man-made substances rather than proteins. The scientist in him knew a lot about biology; the artist in him tried to forget most of it. 

Jansen lets the computer play evolution by “selecting” the best designs according to algorithms that are genetic in origin and based on previous successes. Naturally, the computer works faster than nature. The past 18 years have witnessed multiple generations, as each gets better at finding more efficient ways to move. Early generations were built with wood; then Jansen lighted on PVC tubing. It’s a ubiquitous material in Holland, having been mandated for electrical work in buildings since 1947. It was a natural for Jansen; even as a kid, he used it effectively to blow paper darts. It’s strong, yet light, and flexible, the perfect skeletal material.

As you might expect, some generations died out like dodos. The more nimble and rapid animals got the chance to reproduce themselves. And they bred with other Beesten species to improve their chances.  The Strandbeesten must also survive the elements, and newer generations have developed special appendages to prevent them from blowing away. They haven’t yet learned to swim, so when they reach the surf, they stop and walk back in the opposite direction.  So as not to be blown over, one might throw down a long trunk and anchor a pin in the sand. Still others scoop up a bit of sand, aerating it in an act of beach maintenance.   

The Strandbeesten are testimony to the power of a great artist to transport us from our usual and unremarkable reality to that special realm of fantasy and imagination. Jansen dreams that one day his beasts will live in herds on the beaches. I too hope to live in a world, in which Strandbeesten roam free. 

More connections:

PopCast on Theo Jansen

Daily Muse—Kinetic Sculpture in Munich

Evolutionary Novelties

Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism in Photography

Posted in Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on November 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Note: this is the second in a two-part series that begins with “The Possibilities of Expression”: Photographic Pictorialism


“The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves. These photographs are a direct expression of today. We have reproduced them in all their brutality.”

—Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, number 49/50, June 1917

Paul Strand—New York, 1917Paul Strand, New York,  published in Camera Work 1917, photogravure.

Alfred Stieglitz began publication of his second journal, Camera Work, in 1903. The first issue launched the Photo-Secession group. In the years between 1903 and 1910, Camera Work was the pre-eminent showcase for “pictorial” photographers, Photo-Secession members and other photographers who work emulated painting style. Beginning in 1910, Stieglitz devoted an increasing percentage of pages in the magazine to contemporary art.  The August, 1912 issue, for example,  was devoted solely to the painted and sculptural work of Matisse and Picasso.

Strand had been introduced to photography in high school; his first teacher was documentarian Lewis Hine and his mentor’s commitment to social improvement through photography can be felt in all of Strand’s work.  In 1907, the school’s camera club took a field trip to Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, where Strand fell decidedly under the spell of Photo Secession members Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Frederick H. Evans.

After 1913, Stieglitz published six final issues of Camera Work. He saw the potential of a young Paul Strand (1890-1976), but early on ironically criticized him for his soft focus, pictorialist approach. By 1915, Strand had had a break-through;  with New York City as his subject he created sharp-focus semi-abstractions and journalistic portraits of street people.  Rightfully impressed, Stieglitz devoted the final two issues (numbers 49/50) of Camera Work to this body of work. In Strand, he remarked that he had seen the photographic equivalent of Picasso’s abstraction.

Fascinated by the Cubists, Strand had experimented with greater abstraction in his compositions, gradually abandoning arecognizable picture plane and comprehensible subject matter.

Paul Strand, Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, silver gelatin print 1916, 12 15/16 x 9 5/8 in (photo ©1997 Aperture Foundation /Paul Strand Archive)

Photographs Strand made in the summer of 1916 are thought to be the first significant abstractions intentionally made with a camera. In the most abstract (above) the picture plane has been reduced to a series of flat interlocking shapes. Thus, forms alone, unattached to any pictorial reality, have become the photograph’s subject. Thus did photography take a step into the era of modernism.

A version of “Abstraction” apparently appeared in the last issue of Camera Work. (Unfortunately I can find no pictorial record of it.) Regardless, the Strand issues of Camera Work nailed the pictorialism coffin forever shut. Printed with a harsh strength on thicker paper and a more resonant ink, they were far removed from the delicate and ethereal reproductions of the earlier issues. The issue was Stieglitz’s treatise on future of photography.

Stieglitz rediscovered photography through Strand and, over the next few years, devoted himself again to his own work. The influence of Strand’s uncompromisingly direct style can be plainly seen this later work of Stieglitz. Although he occasionally thought of publishing further issues of Camera Work, it never happened.

Wider Connections

Photography Now—Paul Strand

Aperture—Paul Strand

Abstraction, Twin Lakes (alternate version)

Georgia on His Mind: Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keefe

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