Pointillism: The Prequel, and Other News


On the Shelf

Detail from a Seurat painting.


  • Has this ever happened to you: you invent a whole new kind of painting, and you’re feeling really proud of yourself and super accomplished, and then you discover that some prehistoric people actually beat you to it by thirty-eight thousand years? Okay, well, Georges Seurat is dead, but he may be exasperated in the afterlife: scientists at Abri Cellier, a cave site in the Vézère Valley of France, have discovered early evidence of Pointillism there, evidence that far predates Seurat, of course. As JoAnna Klein writes, “They found sixteen limestone tablets left behind by a previous excavation. Images of what appear to be animals, including a woolly mammoth, were formed by a series of punctured dots and, in some cases, carved connecting lines. Combined with previous images from nearby caves in France and Spain, the tablets suggest an early form of pointillism, and a very early point on art history’s timeline. ‘Imagine the first time a human convinced someone else that a line, or a group of lines is an animal,’ said Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University who led the excavation … It is impossible to say that this was a magical moment when humans invented art. But in these tablets, he thinks he and his team may have gotten close.”
  • In which Alice Spawls recounts a great anecdote about Cy Twombly and paper: “The photographer Sally Mann tells a story about being at a dinner party with Cy Twombly—the two were friends from their hometown of Lexington, Virginia. ‘He was writing directions for somebody—how to get to the antique mall or something—and he wrote them and the guy said, “Oh yes, I know where that is,” and they left them on the table, and I swear to god—like Wagnerian harpies out of the rafters these people came swooping down on this little scrap of paper!’ The rapacious guests might have done the same for any famous artist (despite early obscurity, by the end of his life Twombly was being called ‘the most important living artist’) but the idea of a Twombly napkin has a sort of genius to it: so many of his surfaces, painted white or bare material, are repositories of scribbles, dribbles and smears, scrawled with lists and doodles and diagrams, written on then crossed out or rubbed out leaving only messy traces. After spending some time in front of Twombly’s work, you begin to look at your own bits and pieces differently. Post-it notes appear enigmatic, rarefied; full of teasing suggestiveness.”

  • Miranda Popkey remembers that time that George and Mary Oppen gave up their artistic careers to become antifascist pinkos: “They joined the Communist Party and became members of the Workers Alliance. They occupied the apartments of those threatened with eviction; they secured rent and food aid from the relief bureau for those who were eligible. In New York’s Oneida County, the Oppens helped organize dairy farmers in a milk strike. ‘In a short time, we were no longer thinking … of poetry or of painting,’ Mary recalls … By all accounts, the decision that the Oppens made in the winter of 1935 was not one they ever regretted. Regret seems not to have been an element of their emotional lives at all.”
  • In 1764, Voltaire published a compendium called the Dictionnaire philosophique, full of rebukes to the Roman Catholic Church, Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism—but he reserved a bit of praise for the Buddha himself. Donald S. Lopez explains, “He begins, ‘I recall that Sammonocodom, the god of the Siamese, was born from a young virgin and was raised on a flower.’ He goes on to list, not without irony, other famous cases of miraculous birth from other cultures. Immediately seeking to separate the man from the myth, he observes that, ‘The religion of the Siamese proves to us that never did a lawmaker teach bad morals,’ noting that the rules that the Buddha made for his monks are just as severe as those of St. Benedict. Voltaire goes on to provide a somewhat idiosyncratic but not inaccurate list of these rules. It includes, ‘Avoid songs, dances, assemblies, everything that might soften the soul,’ ‘Do not have gold or silver,’ ‘Speak only of justice and work only for justice,’ ‘Sleep little, eat little, keep only one robe,’ ‘Never mock,’ and ‘Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.’ ”