Archive for Victorians

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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Anna Atkins, Mistress of Blueprint Manor

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.
—Anna Atkins, October 1843

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta (from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype
(New York Public Library)

In August 1839 at the meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris Louis Daguerre debuted his eponymous photographic process. To the French public of that time, his “drawing by light” method was nothing short of miraculous; as if by magic, a singular image appeared on a chemically-prepared copper plate after its exposure to light in a camera.

Daguerre’s announcement dealt William Henry Fox Talbot a severe personal blow, for Talbot had discovered his own way to burn photographic images on to paper as a result of  experimentations begun in 1833.

Louis Daguerre, Arrangement of Fossil Shells, 1837-39
Daguerreotype
(Musée des arts et métiers, Paris)

Talbot would often bypass the camera by simply laying objects on top of the paper and exposing it to sunlight. The first exposure of these “photogenic drawings” (or “photograms” as they known today) resulted in a negative image, so Talbot simply laid the paper negative over a new sheet of sensitized paper to produce the corresponding positive image.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Leaf, ca 1840
Photogenic drawing
(©The Estate of William Henry Fox Talbot)

Unlike Daguerre, Talbot had kept his discoveries largely private.” Although the announcement forced Talbot to make his findings public through patent application, nonetheless, the Frenchman secured a place in history as “the father of photography.”  Ironically, it was Talbot’s wet-chemical, paper-based process that would create the basic framework for all subsequent photography until the digital age.

Despite initial disappointment, Talbot would have his own victory. His dream that photography allow “every man to be his own printer and publisher” was realized through Anna Atkins’s publication of the 12-part British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book be illustrated by the photographic medium. The work proved that an individual could print near-perfect reproductions, while preserving precise details of the subject matter.

Anna Atkins, Chordaria flagelliformis
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype
(New York Public Library)

In many ways Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was typical of a certain early Victorian gentlewomen. In an era when refined women like Atkins were not encouraged to participate professionally in science, they nonetheless became skillful amateur helpmates of their fathers, husbands or other male friends. Attitudes toward the seashore were changing greatly—the notion of the ocean’s edge as a territory marked by piracy, smuggling and wreckage was beginning to disappear and the concept of  the “beach,” a recreational area populated by the leisure-seeking masses, was still decades away. Though Darwin had yet to publish his Origin of Species (1859), public interest in natural world was high. Marine debris was a source of curiosity. As botany was the one science in which it was permissible for women to involve themselves, many, like Anna Atkins, spent hours at the seashore collecting specimens, not just for their scientific value but as aesthetic and collectibles objects.

Unknown Photographer, Anna Atkins,1861
Albumen print

Atkins was a knowledgeable amateur botanist and superb botanical illustrator to boot. She was enthusiastically supported by her widower father, John George Children, who was, among other things, Keeper of the Department of Natural History Modern Curiosities at the British Museum. Thus, Atkins had extraordinary access to botanical knowledge of the day. By the late 1830s, she had already illustrated her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells. At his urging, she set out to provide the visual companion to William Harvey’s pioneering but un-illustrated 1841 Manual of British Algae. It was not for lack of drawing ability that she turned to photographic processes in this effort.

Anna Atkins, Equisetum sylvaticum
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, 1853
Cyanotype

Atkins’ father chaired the Royal Society meeting at which Talbot first disclosed the details of his “photogenic drawing.” Subsequently Atkins and her father received many tutorials on the method. Thus, it would have been only natural that she employ Talbot’s approach (if not his actual method) on her project; after all, arranging specimens on sheets of glass and letting the interaction of light and chemistry do the rest would have been far less time consuming than hand drawing the 400 plates.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel with Cap, 1867.
Cameron considered Herschel “my first Teacher.”

Atkins’ neighbor in Kent, Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), greatly influenced the project. Herschel, the only son of the distinguished British astronomer William Herschel, was a well-known astronomer in his own right. By the time of Daguerre’s announcement, he too had been independently experimenting with various photographic processes for several years.

Sir John Herschel, Lady with a Harp, 1842
Cyanotype
(Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford)

Herschel had met Talbot a decade previously. With Daguerre’s discovery Sir John suggested Talbot come to his estate to view the latter’s own photographic discoveries.  Herschel ended up making many contributions to the emerging medium, the most important of which was something Talbot probably saw on the day he visited: the use of sodium thiosulfate  or “hyposulphite of soda” (“hypo” for short) to permanently “fix” (i.e. stabilize) photographs.  (Later, Herschel would be the first to coin the terms “positive,” “negative,” “snap-shot” and  to regularly use “photograph” to describe the prints.)

Anna Atkins, Himanthalia lorea
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype

Perhaps the astronomer’s most influential discovery occurred in late 1842, when he realized that, when exposed to UV light (i.e. sun) a paper soaked a with a complex iron salt solution durably captured a blue “negative” image, once the salts had been rinsed away. For obvious reasons, Herschel named these prints Cyanotypes, or more colloquially, blueprints.

Anna Atkins, Papaver orientale
(from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, 1854-1861
Cyanotype
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Ironically, Herschel had little interest in producing images; he was more engaged with understanding the nature of light. His neighbor Anna Atkins, on the other hand, put his process to good use. She made 13 known versions of British Algae and, following its completion, went on to produce two other volumes—British and Foreign Ferns and, in conjunction with Anna Austen Dixon (relative of writer Jane), British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. She was responsible for thousands of Cyanotypes.

Anna Atkins, Anatomized Leaves
(
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns), 1854-1861
Cyanotype

Atkins’ previous work reveals an illustrator driven more by artistic than scientific considerations. She may have chosen to use the Cyanotype process because its ethereal blue prints perfectly suggested the watery depths in which her algae specimens had lived.  It’s equally likely, given prevailing sentiments about nature,  that in the “photogenic” process Atkins found the truest way to replicate a plant just as nature had made it, edges, wrinkles and folds perfectly rendered. Her blue prints—taken from the plants themselves—were in a sense, the purest botanical drawings, drawn not by the hand of wo/man, but by light under the direction of nature.

Anna Atkins, Titlepage of British Ferns, ca. 1852
Cyanotype
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Wider Connections

Alternative Photographysource for alternative photographic processes
Geoffrey Batchen—William Henry Fox Talbot
“In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age”—r
eview of National Gallery exhibition
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860

Venetian Red Turns 200

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , on September 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

matisse-interior-in-venetian-red-1946

Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946
Oil on linen, 36 1/4 x 25 1/2″
(Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique)

Before we launched Venetian Red, one trusted blogmeister advised us that it would take at least 200 posts before we’d really get noticed. Back in May 2008, that seemed like an impossible goal, nearly unfathomable in its abstraction. And yet, by the miracle of passion and diligence, here we are. Of course, 200 is just an arbitrary signpost; it’s what’s behind the number that’s most important.

As two working artists, we conceived this blog as a vehicle to share our perspectives on the collective creative endeavor. We wanted a forum to dig more deeply into what influences and inspires us creatively. We wanted to delve into the mysteries and commonalities of creating art. We wanted to explore the connections, big and small, between the art and design worlds. We wanted to think out loud about the issues that concern us. We decided to do this in a public realm, because making art, like being human, is more richly experienced as a collaborative process.

We’re proud of our work to date, which, true to our interests, is wide-ranging. Venetian Red has tackled Old Masters and kuba cloth; painters and lace makers; photographers and Russian windows; site works and artists writing about art. In places, we’ve gone deep—over the past 14 months we’ve devoted a lot of space to the Victorians and the Ottomans. (Well why not? They’re a fascinating lot.)  On other topics, we’ve only skimmed the surface. Thankfully, there is so much more to discuss.

And while pondering and writing have been fulfilling in their own right, our biggest reward has been finding you, our group of loyal readers. When we posted our first entry, A Crimson Fez, we had no idea whether what we had to say would interest anyone else. Miraculously, though, you showed up. In numbers (some of you from half-way around the globe) and with feedback. For that, we thank you!

Venetian Red is blessed in turning 200. Thank you for being here to celebrate this milestone. We hope that you will stay with us—there are still many places to go on this enduring journey of mystery and discovery that is art.

Eminent Victorian: William Morris and “The Beauty of Life”

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , on June 11, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

WilliamMorrisOn his first trip to France in 1855, the 21-year-old William Morris wrote to his mother: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I may reasonably hope to be happy in my work.” This, for me, sums up Morris’ greatness: his prodigious energy, insatiable curiosity and passion had the underpinnings of a tremendous work ethic, moral integrity and true decency. When Morris died in 1896, at the age of 62, his doctor said the cause of death was simply “being William Morris.” And no wonder—Morris was a poet, novelist, bibliophile, translator, embroiderer, calligrapher, engraver, gardener, decorator, dyer, weaver, architectural preservationist and Socialist. He designed furniture, printed and woven textiles, stained glass, tiles, carpets, tapestry, murals, wallpaper, books and type. An early environmentalist, the floral designs for which he is famous were informed by his knowledge of horticulture and inspired in part by medieval tapestries and the many gardens he planted and tended.

WMIrisWilliam Morris, design for Iris, printed cotton, c.1876

WMJasmineWilliam Morris, Jasmine, wallpaper, 1872

In 1847, after an idyllic childhood, Morris was sent away to Marlborough College a few months after the death of his father. He hated the school but loved the surrounding landscape and spent as much time as possible roaming the countryside. While at Marlborough, Morris abandoned his family’s tame Protestantism and embraced the music, ritual and aesthetics of Anglo-Catholicism. When he went up to Oxford in 1853, he intended to devote his life to God, but he soon abandoned the church for art. He always had a taste for things medieval and Gothic—it is said that he read the novels of Walter Scott at age 4. While at Oxford, he was very influenced by the work of John Ruskin, especially his essay “The Nature of Gothic” in his book The Stones of Venice. Oxford was also where he met his life-long friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, the son of a gilder from Birmingham who educated Morris about the plight of working-class laborers.

WMEBJEdward Burne-Jones and William Morris, 1890
photo:William Morris Gallery, London

William Morris was a Renaissance man in Victorian times. He is considered to be the founder, along with John Ruskin, of the Arts & Crafts movement. In his lecture, The Beauty of Life, given in 1880, Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” He despised the aesthetic failings of the machine age and the division of labor that broke down production, from design to execution, into separate tasks. He extolled the joys of handwork and the integrity of creative labor. He wanted to unify art and craftsmanship. He wrote: “If I were to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most longed for, I should answer, a beautiful house.”

A William Morris interior was the antithesis of the Victorian aesthetic of overstuffed rooms, draped with endless yards of fabric, filled with memorabilia, potted plants and heaps of mass-produced decorative embellishments.

VictorianroomVictorian drawing Room, Wickham Hall, Kent, 1897

Even though Morris combined densely patterned carpets, upholstery and wallpaper, the designs, influenced by nature but with orderly, flat areas of color and a graceful linear quality, had a clean simplicity and elegance.

KelmscottDrawing Room, Kelmscott Manor

Earlier I mentioned Morris’ decency. He insisted on a pleasant environment for his workers and his workshops were filled with light and air.

MertonAbbeyMerton Abbey, hand-blocking chintz in the print shop

He also believed everyone should have access to beautiful things: “What business have we with art, unless we can all share it?” He was a man who embodied enormous contradictions: an environmentalist who derided industrialization and urbanization, yet spent much of his life working in London; a Socialist who designed luxury goods for the wealthy and predicted the demise of capitalism. This latter conflict, in part, led Morris away from design into activism and book publishing, but not before appointing his disciple, the extremely talented John Henry Dearle, as the chief designer at Morris & Co.

JHDArtichokeJohn Henry Dearle, Artichoke wallpaper, 1899

JHDcherwellJohn Henry Dearle, Cherwell, wall hanging, 1897
Block printed velveteen

Morris devoted the last 10 years of his life to book publishing. Dissatisfied with the state of British publishing, he founded the Kelmscott Press “with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty.” Not surprisingly, it was very important to Morris for his books to have a strong visual element and they were filled with exquisite detail, including illustrations, decorative motifs and printed cloth book covers.

WMbookcoverWilliam Morris, The Roots of the Mountains (London, Chiswick Press, 1890), bound in Honeysuckle printed cotton

WMBookWilliam Morris, for the Kelmscott Press
Proof, title-page, The History of Reynard the Fox, 1893

Even more significant than his own prodigious output is the role Morris played as a catalyst, leaving an enormous legacy to craftsmen, designers, writers, publishers and politicians. He also inspired the founding of many schools and guilds devoted to the Arts & Crafts aesthetic.

CraftsmanThe Craftsman, October 1901
(The first issue, dedicated to William Morris)

William Morris contributed to, and inspired, the renaissance of British craftsmanship which led to an exciting new generation of British textile designers—Dorothy Larcher, Phyllis Barron, Enid Marx among many others. These designers embraced many of Morris’ ideals, but were determined to develop a new, more international aesthetic—experimenting with vegetable dyes, block-printing and traditional hand weaving techniques and taking inspiration from Italian, Scandinavian and Eastern European folk art. Some, inspired by the Bauhaus in Weimar, moved into industrial production.

Dorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block printed linen, 1930sDorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block-printed linen, 1930s

Morris loved beauty and nature but especially delighted in the man made co-existing in harmony with nature—and every beautiful object he created in his intensely productive life was a tribute to that vision.

“My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another.” Letter to Cornell Price, Oxford, 1856.

WMsnakesheadWilliam Morris, Snakeshead, printed cotton, 1876

A Birthday Salute to Charles Darwin

Posted in Flora & Fauna, Liz Hager, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2009 by Liz Hager

darwin-post

©2009 ECHager

Perhaps no single person has had a greater impact on our conception of the natural sciences than Charles Darwin. Indeed, his theories regarding the competition for scarce resources, adaptability, and natural selection have been co-opted by disciplines beyond botany.  Amazingly, Darwin was not a professional botanist; rather he read much and taught himself by observing.

Darwin was born 200 years ago today into an illustrious family (his grandfathers were Josiah Wedgwood, as famous a potter as his own father Thomas, and Erasmus Darwin, a physician, poet, inventor and philosopher). He was a modest man, plagued throughout his life by doubts and ill health. His first book, The Voyage of the Beagle, was published in 1839 not long after he returned from a five-year sea journey along the coast of south America.  It was on this trip that the young man observed the phenomenon of bio-diversity (in finch populations) that sparked his later thinking.  Although Darwin entered his first insights regarding natural selection in his notebook on September 28, 1838, he kept his ideas to himself for virtually the next 20 years. In the intervening decades, Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie died (1851), he was awarded the Royal Medal for his study of barnacles (1853), and Alfred Russel Wallace published an article on the relationship between varieties and species. The latter sent Darwin into a fit of consternation. “I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base and paltry,” he commented. Nevertheless, the article galvanized him to finish his manuscript. He presented his ideas formally at a meeting of the Linnean Society (named for the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus) in 1858. His seminal work  On the Origin of Species (by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) was finally published late the following year. Darwin was 50. 

On the Origin of Species laid out the theory of natural selection through copious observation and minutely-recorded data.  It was a milestone in naturalist thought, but it was not created in an intellectual vacuum. Extremely well-read, Darwin built his ideas upon those of his grandfather Erasmus, botanist John Stevens Henslow, as well as geologists Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell, Thomas Robert Malthus‘ influential work  An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).  His contribution postulated that a species’ struggle for survival (competition for scarce resources) led to “natural design, that is survival of the fittest (a phrase actually first coined in 1864 by Herbert Spencer, philosopher and political theorist) and the “principal of divergence,” which suggested that diversification and adaptation led to greater surviving numbers of the species.  Although Darwin could show that variation in species indisputably occurred, he had no idea how it happened. That would be left for 20th-century geneticists to explain.

Given the puritanical times in which he lived, Darwin stopped short in The Origin of Species of suggesting that humans had evolved through natural selection from some lesser life form. But he eventually took up the cause in his subsequent book The Descent of Man, published in 1871.  One can only wonder what Darwin would think about the ongoing dispute in certain 21st-century quarters regarding his theory of evolution. 

Darwin died in 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey very close to Isaac Newton. 

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!                                                                 12 February 1809—19 April 1882

 

Wider Connections

The Sand Walk, Darwin’s “Thinking Path.” 

Portraits of Darwin

The Complete Works of Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace 

The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin (National Geographic)

Trouvelot’s Natural Art “Brought to Light” at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on December 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

trouvelot-figure

Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as “Trouvelot Figure.” photograph, ca. 1888-89 (© Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris)

Before its transformation into an art medium, photography dutifully served as a handmaiden to science. Beginning in the mid-19th century, photographers enthusiastically set out to “objectively” record all manner of things, locales, and phenomenon in the natural and man-made worlds. Judging by SFMOMA’s exhibit Brought to Light exhibit (on view until Janurary 4, 2009), the quest to illuminate “invisible” phenomena yielded not just advancements in scientific understanding but most intriguing artistic results.  The images here embrace a scope that ranges from the infinitesimal to the infinite. Amid the numerous insect studies, the microscopic comparison of the structure of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley is a masterpiece of artistic design in its own right. On the other end of the scale, it’s harder to appreciate the novelty of the astronomical images in the show after decades of NASA-driven photography.  For some, the Muybridge motion studies will be a revelation, although regrettably a few of the less interesting ones involving naked women struggle to rise above the level of Victorian-era titillation.

The number of singular gems overshadows the few weaker pieces. The several “Trouvelot figures” similar to the one above are still capable some 150 years later of eliciting a breathy “wow,” even in the face of our technically-sophisticated modern imaging techniques. Though reviled for his introduction of the dredded gypsy moth into the United States, and better known artistically for his telescopic drawings of celestial bodies, Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot also used photography to illuminate the invisible world of electricity. In this endeavor he excelled, achieving stunning otherworldly results.

Strictly speaking, Trouvelot wasn’t innovating, but using photography to recreate an electrical phenomenon already discovered a century before. In 1778 German satirist and scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg conducted a seminal experiment, in which he found that a rapid electric discharge over a non-conducting plate caused the powder on the plate to be arranged in unusual patterns with different characteristics depending on the type of charge. Lichtenberg found that by pressing blank sheets of paper onto these pattens, he was able to transfer and record these images (thus discovering the basic principle of modern xerography). These “patterns” are still referred to as “Lichtenberg figures.” Like snowflakes, each figure displays a unique pattern.

In the late 1880s, Trouvelot found that substituting a photographic plate (emulsion side in contact with an electrode) for Lichtenberg’s insulating plate allowed him to produce “Lichtenberg figures” on the developed photograph. Thus, these photographs of his became known as “Trouvelot figures.”

Modern day applications of this technique abound—

For anyone interested in the history of photography, Brought to Light is an invaluable introduction to many photographers not generally covered in the usual surveys. For those with less scholarly interests, the show is simply a reminder that nature often has no artistic equal.

Wider Connections

Bean Gilsdorf— “The Eye of Science”
Trouvelot on the American Silk Worm
NYPL exhibit
Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders—”Heavenly Visions” post
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—Waste Books

On the Trail of Alexander: Aurel Stein & the Caves of Dunhuang

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2008 by Liz Hager


Traveling Monk sutra, colored inks on paper, 10th century CE,

Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. (courtesy British Museum) 

In July, 1900, Marc Aurel Stein stood amidst the high glaciers of the Pamir Mountains at the source of the Oxus River (now the Amu Dayra). As a young student in Dresden in the 1870s, Hungarian-born Stein was captivated by the military campaigns of Alexander, who marched his sizable armies from Greece through the steppes of Central Asian all the way to the Indus River valley, some 3000 miles as the crow flies.   Stein must have had a sense of what Alexander felt when he arrived at this place, the edge of the known world for the Greeks.  Although Stein couldn’t have known it then, this spot carried additional import. He was more or less at the midpoint of the famed “Silk Route,” the vast and shifting network of trade routes, which for centuries had connected China with the Mediterranean. Rediscovery of the civilizations along the Silk Route would make Stein’s reputation in his day.  And yet, today,  Aurel Stein is one of the least known explorers and archeologists of the 20th century.

Aurel Stein, Mogao Cave Grotto, Dunhuang, 1907,
photograph (courtesy Digital Archive, Toyo Bunko Rare Books)

Stein’s side trip to the Oxus was part of but one of 11 archeological expeditions he mounted during his lifetime, eight alone through the treacherous Tarim Basin in the heart of Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang Uigher Automous and Gansu Provinces).   Altogether these expeditions lasted 7 years and covered some 40,000 kilometers over the most inhospitable terrains on camel, horse-back, and, when the going got rough, by foot.  The teams endured hurricanes of sand, frostbite, blindness and death in pursuit of Stein’s singleminded quest for ancient secrets buried in the sand.  Quite simply, Aurel Stein was able to see beyond the absolute desolation of the Central Asian landscape, beyond the acute physical pain he and members of his party often endured, to the cultural promise that a thousand years of history had bestowed on this part of the world.

Manjushri visiting Vimalakirti, ink and colours on paper, mid 10th c. CE,
Five Dynasties
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China (courtesy British Museum).

Stein’s enduring legacy is his 1907 “discovery” of the Buddhist shrines at Dunhuang, a network of thousands of caves that once housed pilgrims and monks as they made their way along the northern and southern routes that skirted the large and formidable Takla Makan desert. The import of his find cannot be overestimated, for in the caves were tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures and artifacts, undoubtedly the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.  In the tradition of the day, Stein carted off as much as his camels could carry—literally tons—but not for himself.

The booty from Stein’s excavations was split among the governments of Britain, India, and Hungary. Portions of it are on view at the British Museum, the British Library, Srinagar (Kashmir) Museum, and the National Museum in New Delhi.  Some of it has been digitalized, but most lies in the basements.

In addition, see Venetian Red posts on elements of the Stein collections—Talisman of the Pole Star; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

The Dunhuang discovery in particular provided invaluable documentation of life along the Silk Route. Much of it dated from the Tang Dynasty, a period more than 1000 years ago of particular prosperity along the Silk Route. Stein’s most important find was the “Diamond Sutra”— dated at 868 AD, it is the world’s earliest known printed book. In an interesting side note, the collection also provided scholars with the data necessary to connect the path of Buddhism from India to China.

Although Stein has been dead for over 65 years, the Chinese haven’t forgiven this “imperialist villian” for purloining a part of their national heritage.  Today, mostly due to vandalism in the 20th century, fewer than five hundred caves survive intact. We’ll never know what the Chinese would have done with the pieces that Stein took.  The way things are going in the museum world, they may get some of them back.

Wider Connections

Today in the Takla Makan desert

Foreign Devils on the Silk Route —Peter Hopkirk’s engaging overview of the early 20th c. archeological “raiders”  in this corner of Central Asia.

The Thousand Buddhas (digital copy of 1921 original book)

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk RoadAnnabel Walker’s informative and highly-readable biography of Stein (now out of print)

Aurel Stein at the British Museum

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