Picasso’s Blue Sympathies

Picasso’s Blue Period–or basically anything he did before Cubism–has always struck me as more powerful than anything he did later, which seems mostly theoretical playing. Not that I think somebody as vast as Picasso could stay in one phase forever (I’ve asked before what a genius is supposed to do when they’re almost too good.) Works like Guernica and his […]

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What’s a Genius to Do?

It’s been said of Picasso: “At the age of sixteen, he produced two paintings which were of academic perfection…. So what do you do with your life if you’re producing academically perfect works at the age of sixteen? Every step afterwards is an innovation.” Indeed, whether you like where Picasso went or not, it’s undeniable that he never stopped moving. […]

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The Past is Not Dead: There is Only Continuity

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume of the history of England: Other forms of continuity are also evident. Modern roads follow the line of old paths and trackways. The boundaries of many contemporary parishes follow previous patterns of settlement, along which ancient burials are still to be found. Our distant ancestors are still around us. There […]

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History is An Accident

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume on the history of England: When we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. I have already explained, in the course of this narrative, that the writing of history is often another way of defining chaos. There is […]

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Caravaggio’s Dirty Feet

The affront that many of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings presented to their first audience must have been astonishing: casting a local girl as the Virgin Mary being visited by pilgrims, or the body of a prostitute as her corpse after death; filling almost the entire canvas of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus with the horse he’s just fallen from; […]

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Picasso & Sex

from John Richardson’s biography of Picasso: When questioned much later about his earliest sexual experience, Picasso claimed that his sex life had started very early on: “Yes,” he says smiling, with a sparkle in his eye, “I was still quite small”—and he indicated a diminutive height wit his hand. “Obviously I didn’t wait for the age of reason. If I […]

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Heat & Light at Lascaux

  The environment in which some of humanity’s first–and still best–works of art, in the cave of Lascaux nearly thirty thousand years ago, is described here by Randall White: Plant materials, especially wood, would have been important fuel for cooking, heating, and light. Again, the excellent preservation at Lascaux indicates that certain species of trees and shrubs were sought, especially […]

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The Melancholy of William Blake

No matter how poor he got, and no matter what of his belongings he had to sell to get by, William Blake always held onto a print of Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 work, Melencolia I; it was found in his workroom when he died. And so it is worth looking in detail, again and again, at anything which an artist and […]

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The Painting that Lit a Million Conspiracy Theories

It’s too bad Nicholas Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcady/Et in Arcadia (Even in Arcadia, there am I) can’t get much attention except as a link to the Holy Blood-Holy Grail/Dan Brown stories. It’s magnificent enough on its own. You can also read more about it, including the conspiracy stuff, here. Click on the painting to enlarge:  

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Aldous Huxley Saves the Day

from Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes: In a collection of travel essays published in 1925, Aldous Huxley had called Piero [della Francesca’s] Resurrection, the fresco that decorates the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro, “the greatest picture in the world.” In the last days of World War II, as British soldiers began shelling Nazi-occupied Sansepolcro with the intention of reducing it to […]

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Images: The Saint & the Lion

One of the great jazz standards of Medieval & Renaissance art, here’s only a selection of all the depictions of St. Jerome: studying indoors or out, with or without his lion or skull, probably translating the Bible as he goes, reading or writing always. All a good excuse for artists to place him in contemporary landscapes, or familiar book-lined rooms. […]

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One of the Most Haunting Paintings

At least for me, John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” is one of the more haunting paintings. What it appears to say about family, isolation, childhood, the lives of women and girls, and perhaps even the deleterious effects of being rich, seem quite endless. And the history of each of the girls’ later lives only adds to […]

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Marc Chagall Struck by Lightning

  The artist Marc Chagall, meeting his wife Bella Rosenfeld in 1909; they were together for the next 35 years: I am at Thea’s, lying on the sofa in the consulting room of her father, a physician. I liked to stretch out that way near the window on that sofa covered with a black horsehair cloth, worn, with holes in […]

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The Hooded Lady of Brassempouy

from Randall White’s Prehistoric Art: The best known of the statuettes from Brassempouy is the 25,000 year-old “dame à la capuche” (hooded lady), carved from the dense, homogenous interior core of a mammoth tusk. She was found immediately below a fireplace and was covered by a small limestone slab. Although she has frequently been imagined to be the broken-off head […]

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We Were All Animals Once: The Beginning of Anthropomorphic Thinking

from Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind:   This propensity to think of the natural world in social terms is perhaps most evident in the ubiquitous use of anthropomorphic thinking—attributing animals with humanlike minds. Consider the Inuit and the polar bear. This animal is highly sought after and is “killed with passion, butchered with care and eaten with delight.” But […]

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Vermeer in Bosnia

If anyone asks you about the Why of art, especially in the face of atrocity or just its apparent impracticality—for the artist or the audience—this anecdote from Lawrence Weschler is about as good an answer as I know.   I happened to be in The Hague a while back, sitting in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes […]

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Humanity’s Earliest Rituals

Three passages on prehistoric religion from the book Becoming Human:   One of the pervasive themes of [this book] is that spirituality and materiality cannot be separated. The roots of religion are to be found in ritual practice. And ritual practice, as documented by the material record goes back before the Franco-Cantabrian “explosion”, back indeed before the Blombos engravings [70,000 […]

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The Archaeology & Mythology of Caves

The archaeologist Jean Clottes writes that, besides the more famous paintings in the ice-age caves of France and Spain, it has also been observed that “various objects have been either deposited or stuck into cracks of the walls, or even stuck into the ground. Those apparently non-utilitarian gestures have been noticed from Asturias in Spain to Burgundy in France, from […]

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Neanderthal Compassion, Neanderthal Burials

from the book Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   Caring for severely disabled members of the community must be one of the indicators of respect for the individual and for human life. It is clear that Neanderthals fed and looked after severely handicapped members of their communities who were too disabled to contribute to the food quest. […]

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The Invention of Harmony

from two essays on the origins of the aesthetic impulse in Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   The earliest current evidence for handaxes comes from West Turkana, Kenya, dated to 1.65 Mya [Million years ago]. Similar finds have been made at Konso, again in Ethiopia, dating to 1.5 Mya. These tools show both lateral and bifacial […]

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Michelangelo & Leonardo da Vinci

From Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of da Vinci, here is about as concise and colorful a summary of how true genius can, in the same century and even the same city, manifest itself in entirely different ways: When Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482, Michelangelo was only seven years old. His father was a member of Florence’s minor nobility […]

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Unfinished Michelangelo (poem)

Unfinished Michelangelo The impossible bodies of apostles, messiahs and slaves, statues that couldn’t have stood had he finished them, faces half buried in membranes of marble that threaten to swallow and take them back; bodies climbing without hands or feet or legs out of the mineral morass in the great struggle for birth: a nearly headless body, torso only, drowning […]

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“Cauldron & Drink” – New Poem at Crannóg

Many thanks to the editors of Crannóg, who published my poem “Cauldron & Drink” in their most recent issue. It’s one of my favorites from my upcoming book of poems from old Europe.  For readers outside of Ireland and the UK, I’ve pasted an image from the journal below, although I would encourage everyone to subscribe.  

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Albrecht Dürer

Entries in the Anthology series organize my favorite anecdotes about artists, writers, and historical events, and are always being updated. While I love and depend on the exhaustive biography or study, in many ways the disconnected stories and fragments have been more important in my day-to-day living with art, literature and history. As such, nothing original is assumed here, and […]

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Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper - People in the Sun

Entries in the Anthology series organize my favorite anecdotes about artists, writers, and historical events, and are always being updated. While I love and depend on the exhaustive biography or study, in many ways the disconnected stories and fragments have been more important in my day-to-day living with art, literature and history. As such, nothing original is assumed here, and […]

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