Arts & Culture
July 1, 2015 | by Max Nelson
Poe’s vision of the cosmos and the art it inspired.
Since adolescence, Edgar Allan Poe had been picking fights with science. His second collection of poetry, published when he was all of twenty, opened with a mischievous sonnet needling what he called that “true daughter of Old Time”:
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
By the time Poe wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, the last major work he published before his premature death in 1849, his attitude toward certain men of science had softened. He eagerly absorbed—and sometimes rejected—theoretical works by the brilliant astronomer Sir John Herschel, the popular scientist J. P. Nichol, and the towering, eccentric naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. He was still capable, on the other hand, of caustic put-downs such as the one he attributes early in the book to a scientist from the distant future. It’s in that figure’s prophetic voice that Poe chews out most of his contemporaries for “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths—the one of creeping and the other of crawling—to which, in their infinite perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul—the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of path.” Read More »
June 18, 2015 | by Maria Bustillos
Borges, Xul Solar, and the occult.
This story is an excerpt from To the Country, a new iBook album by The Size Queens featuring fiction by Joy Williams, Rick Moody, and more.
Lot 51, “The Aleph” by Alejandro Xul Solar, oil, minerals and metals on canvas, 32" x 44.25", 1930.
Xul Solar first painted the Aleph in 1930, but years were to pass before he and his friend J. L. Borges were able to make full use of its divinatory properties, even though it was clear from the moment the work was finished that the quasi-reptilian figure filling the image’s First Door, known to the two as Platon, was able to move freely about the canvas according to his own purposes (his skin in motion acquiring bluish-silvery reflected tints that faded in repose.) Experiments demonstrated that the viewer’s affinity with Platon and certain other figures in the composition resulted in an increased ability to understand and speak foreign languages (“babelismo”); subsequently other correspondences were revealed. Borges, whose middle finger Platon learned to reach out and grasp in a papery but very tight clutch, drawing a little more blood each time, was to prove the image’s most successful interpreter. Such was the lure of the mental enhancement thereby produced that Borges never failed to offer his hand to the painting, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Solar’s attic chambers, whenever the opportunity arose. In time the author’s left middle fingernail split in two with a thick dark pointed scar in its center. And as his inward sight grew keener, Borges’s physical vision commenced to fail: another price he gladly paid.
Solar made three more attempts to depict the Aleph. The second of the four (1931–33, tempera on wood panel, 112.5 x 78 cm) proved to offer the richest “prepotencies” as the visions came to be called. Impulsively, Solar gave the painting to Borges at the end of a somewhat maudlin and vinous evening full of French poetry and games of panjedrez, all of which Borges lost, just before the sun rose on a fragrant Buenos Aires bower in November of 1936. Solar’s diaries and sketchbooks reveal a keen regret over having made this gift, but being a proud man as well as a kind one, he never asked for its return. Read More »
June 17, 2015 | by Anna Heyward
Desire Lines turns a walk in the park into an emotional map.
In 1654, Madeleine de Scudéry produced a ten-volume philosophical novel called Clélie, about the coaction between temperament and free will. Clélie was a popular salon novel at the time, but it’s now best remembered for the Carte de tendre, often translated as “the map of love” or “the map of the country of tenderness”: a long description of a country that represents the landscape of human emotion, illustrated by a map in the first volume of the book. The country is divided by the “river of inclination,” and there are little hamlets, deserts, and mountains like “sincerity,” “assiduity,” and “respect.” “Passion” is a dangerous-looking rocky outcrop, beyond which is unknown territory. To get from one end to another, one must avoid the “Lake of Indifference,” and “Affection” has to be surmounted to arrive at deep spiritual love. The map is one of the premier examples of sentimental cartography, which has a niche spot in French literary history.
In March, the Public Art Fund of New York City installed Desire Lines, a new commissioned work by the French Italian artist Tatiana Trouvé, which mixes sentiment and cartography. Desire Lines is at the southeast end of Central Park, in the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, where it will sit for the summer. The structure comprises three steel racks, nearly twelve feet tall, that hold spools of rope in different colors; there are 212 spools in all, each with a length that corresponds to a specific path in the park. Trouvé mapped, named, and indexed every one of them, from the thoroughfares to the secluded, unnamed paths. From a distance, the installation resembles a giant’s sewing kit, or an electrician’s stock. Engravings on each spool suggest various acts of walking in the culture: “Woman Suffrage Parade, March 3, 1913” or “ ‘Walk on By,’ ” Dionne Warwick, 1964.” Visitors “can choose a path by name and then undertake the walk as it describes, tracing the march of history in collective memory while discovering Central Park anew.” Read More »
June 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
From “Renée Vivien,” an essay by Natalie Clifford Barney anthologized in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Vivien, a poet who was born on this day in 1877, began an intense affair with Barney in 1899; in 1901, they broke up, and Barney began to devote herself to winning Vivien’s affections again. Eventually they reunited and traveled together to Lesbos, but not without great effort on Barney’s part. “How could I win her back?” she writes: “Should I bang on her closed door? Dare to send her a more direct poem, reveal to her my suffering, how much I was suffering? Swallow my pride and admit that I loved her still, since I could not help but be faithful to her?” She decided to write a sonnet—“My tears are a slow poison I will drink/Instead of gleaning from some trivial affair/A barren cure, the final numbness,” are among its lines.
But how to get this sonnet to her without anyone else reading it? I asked my friend, Emma Calvé—who was also suffering from a romantic desertion … to lend me her irresistible voice. That night, disguised as street singers, she sang under Renée Vivien’s French windows: “I have lost Eurydice, there is no pain like mine,” while I pretended to pick up coins thrown to us from the other floors. At last René opened her French window, the better to hear that astounding voice singing the famous aria. “Love is a Bohemian whom no law binds.” The moment had arrived. I threw my poem, attached to a bouquet of blowers, over the garden fence so that she would see it and pick it up. But passers-by were beginning to crowd around us and we had to slip away before the singer, recognized even in the shows by her voice, was swamped with applause. Read More »
June 10, 2015 | by Nellie Hermann
Van Gogh finds art in the Borinage.
In October of 1879, Theo van Gogh went to visit his brother, Vincent, in the Borinage coal-mining district of Belgium. Theo was en route to Paris, where he had business to conduct as an art dealer; Vincent was doing self-appointed missionary work. The pair walked along an abandoned quarry that reminded them of a canal they’d frequented as children in Holland, but now there was an undeniable rift between them. Theo, upset by Vincent’s appearance—he had given away nearly all of his clothes to the miners, and had ceased bathing—told him, “You are not the same any longer.” He felt that Vincent was wasting his time in this squalid place, and suggested that he leave to take up a different trade.
Angry at his brother’s inability to understand him, Vincent wrote a letter to Theo on October 15 that would be the last for ten months. The brothers had been writing letters to each other almost unceasingly since 1872, when Vincent was nineteen and Theo fifteen. This would be the first and deepest rupture between them, a silence that would never repeat itself. Referring to Theo’s accusation of “idleness,” Vincent wrote with bitterness, Read More »
June 8, 2015 | by Ravi Mangla
A brief history of ultramarine.
Michelangelo couldn’t afford ultramarine. His painting The Entombment, the story goes, was left unfinished as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. Rafael reserved ultramarine for his final coat, preferring for his base layers a common azurite; Vermeer was less parsimonious in his application and proceeded to mire his family in debt. Ultramarine: the quality of the shade is embodied in its name. This is the superlative blue, the end-all blue, the blue to which all other hues quietly aspire. The name means “beyond the sea”—a dreamy ode to its distant origins, as romantic as it is imprecise.
Derived from the lapis lazuli stone, the pigment was considered more precious than gold. For centuries, the lone source of ultramarine was an arid strip of mountains in northern Afghanistan. The process of extraction involved grinding the stone into a fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution. Because of its prohibitive costs, the color was traditionally restricted to the raiment of Christ or the Virgin Mary. European painters depended on wealthy patrons to underwrite their purchase. Less scrupulous craftsmen were known to swap ultramarine for smalt or indigo and pocket the difference; if they were caught, the swindle left their reputation in ruin. Read More »