National Geographic Archives Cracked

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, c. 1894-1906. One photograph of a series illustrating the Greek myths.

The New York Times reveals that the National Geographic Society is entertaining the idea of opening up its archive of more than 11 million images to the fine-art market for the first time. Maura Mulvihill of the society recognizes photography’s (specifically, photojournalism) emerging role in the fine art world.

For many years, the collection has only been accessible to a few people. Mulvihill is excited to expose the vintage black-and-white prints and later color images “richly documenting the life of the 20th century, from Uganda to the Mississippi Delta to remote lamaseries near the Mongolian border.” National Geographic is seeking private and institutional collectors for the archive.

photo: One of a series to illustrate the Greek myths. Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, circa 1894-1906.

Jerk University: The Nicholas Roerich Museum

Say, do you know which group of people is terrible? It’s polymaths. They’re a bunch of assholes. These overachieving Renaissance men and women make the rest of us look like sub-human layabouts by comparison.

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Oh, what’s that, Ghost of Michelangelo? You weren’t content to sculpt a top-notch marble relief at age 16? You had to design the Laurentian Library, where Vasari said, “boldness and grace are equally conspicuous”? And then you spent the next half-century creating the most iconic sculpture and fresco in the Western canon? That’s great, except it makes you an insufferable braggart.

If you want to engineer buildings or paint or sculpt, fine. But doing all three is just tacky. It says, “I think I’m better than you because I made the statue of David and designed St. Peter’s Basilica and you spent 45 minutes yesterday trying to figure out how to play ‘Smooth Criminal’ on the guitar.”

Well, I’m unimpressed by a broad ouvre. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t matter how many extracurricular activities you have on your application to Jerk University. It’s still Jerk University, and it’s still a shitty school.”

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The Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a notable alum of JU. While wandering through Manhattan’s Roerich Museum recently, I asked a docent what was up with all the religious paintings—was the guy a mystic? The docent half-smiled and shook his head. “No, he was a scientist.”

A note to aspiring artist-scientists: no one likes a showoff. If you try to wear too many hats, your work will suffer and you’ll look like a fool because you’ll be wearing several hats. Besides, people will get jealous of your versatility and they’ll spread rumors about you being a Scientologist, so it’s best to focus on a single discipline and go with that. For instance, I sacrificed a promising career in the sciences (C+ in high school chemistry; physics in summer school) to focus on my Art. And the decision clearly paid dividends:

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Roerich wasn’t content to be a mere scientist. Like Michelangelo and Dion Sanders, he was hell bent on making everyone else seem shiftless by producing a wide and profound body of work. Exhaustive research (the museum brochure and Wikipedia) reveals that Roerich studied at a fine arts academy while simultaneously pursuing a law degree. I mean Jesus Christ, come on. Nobody does that. He was also an accomplished archaeologist and a member of everything from the Mark Twain Society to the Red Cross to the French Ethnographical Society (which he founded). Oh, and Roerich did the set design for the infamous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Late in his life he drafted a pact—ratified by FDR and 35 other heads of state—establishing the protection of cultural artifacts during times of war.

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But the worst part? The worst part of all of this? Is that his art is killer. Dude published 32 books and he still found time to develop a great painterly technique and earn multiple Nobel nominations. That smug bastard.

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The Roerich Museum’s 200 or so paintings are as gorgeous as they are soulful. Many show religious icons (Milarepa, “Mahomet”) that dominate the picture plane; in others, anonymous figures contrast with muscular landscapes and hallucinogenic skies. Nearly all of the canvases show Roerich to be a skilled draftsman with a powerful understanding of color and light. The Museum itself—an 1890s townhouse with stained glass windows and creaky stairs—is the perfect setting for his work.

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So there you have it. Nicholas Roerich: archeologist, writer, philosopher, lawyer, anthropologist, and painter.

And first-rate dick.

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Playing hide and seek with Yinka Shonibare

Brooklyn Museum period roomI’ve never quite understood the concept of reassembling historic rooms, putting a red velvet rope around it, and funneling tourists on a counter-intuitive path through a house, castle, or museum. But once Yinka Shonibare placed child figures ducking under desks or rocking on horses in the Brooklyn Museum’s “renowned” period rooms, peeking through an untouchable room’s window became a game.

Leaving his exhibit on the first floor of the Brooklyn Museum, I felt a bit cheated. I didn’t expect the majority of Shonibare’s survey to be film. But the map revealed there was more –the large-scale game of hide and seek brought me through other galleries to find those little figures in their clothes of “patterned Dutch wax fabric produced in Europe for a West African market” inside rooms that could easily have belonged to colonists.  According to the exhibition’s website, another site-specific installation, Party Time—Re-Imagine America: A Centennial Commission by Yinka Shonibare MBE,  will be on view at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, from July 1, 2009, to January 3, 2010, in the dining room of the museum’s 1885 Ballantine House.  Would it be cheating to use 20th century transportation?

Scienceblogs goes to the creation museum!

creo_tree-thumb-190x200-17223.jpegGod made dirt and dirt don’t hurt, right?
“Their first big exhibit is a perfect example of the principle in action. It’s a model of a dinosaur dig, with two men working away at excavating the bones. There is a video accompanying it in which the two views are presented. The younger Asian fellow in front says, and I paraphrase, “This animal died about a hundred million years ago. Its body dried in the sun for several days before being slowly buried under layers of sediment in a local flood.” Then the avuncular creationist says, “I see the same bones, but I believe this dinosaur was killed suddenly about 4400 years ago in a huge global flood, which buried it deeply all at once.” And then he goes on to explain that see, they have the very same evidence, but he understands it in the light of God’s word.”

Cyberpunk’d: Cornell’s Boxes are Gorges

cornellSo a few months ago went all nerdcore and ordered $3 paperbacks of all of William Gibson’s old books. You know, guy who coined the word cyberspace, was writing about “the matrix” in the 80s, imagined we “jack in” to the internets through literal sockets in our skulls.

Anyway, we’re reading Count Zero at the moment, and a nodal point in the plot references Joseph Cornell boxes. Being embarrassingly unversed in art history, we looked ‘em up–little boxes of composed ephemera and second hand objects–french maps, cut outs of birds, newsprint–it’s like this guy is channelling an inner aesthetic we could never quite put our finger on. Here’s a little write up on a nice meta-collectors blog that we came across in our digging. We are amazed and inspired.

Atlas Obscura

atlas obscuraWe’d turned off our twitter, ignored our to-blog bookmarks, and generally gotten-the-fuck-outta-dodge when erstwhile SD contributor JC sent us a link to a new project from some old favorites. It’s Atlas Obscura, a wiki-like compendium of the odd by the founders of the Athanasius Kircher Society and Curious Expeditions.

We love the graph paper background, the Medical Museums, the Real Life tours in Philadelphia!

We are reborn!

Modern Self Portraits

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A quickie this time. The Met’s Modern Art Mezzanine has an exhibition called The Lens and the Mirror showing self-portraits from the Museum’s own collection.

We loved the pair of William Roberts drawings, the first from 1911 (when he was sixteen!) and the second from around 1920. In both, the artist’s face is tilted down a bit, giving him a kind of menacing, Alex DeLarge look. There’s also an Egon Schiele watercolor, below, in which the artist appears eroticized and grotesquely emaciated. So, yeah, pretty much like any other portrait he ever did (ProTip: The Neue Galerie, just a few blocks north of the Met’s main entrance, has a fantastic Schiele collection in a weirdly intimate setting).

We enjoyed the Matisse intaglio, an expressive drawing by Umberto Boccioni (who was discussed previously on Suggested Donation) and the wonderfully rigid self-portrait by modernist photographer Edward Steichen (shown below as an unintentional self-portrait of a self-portrait—bad photographers and brightly lit objects behind glass do not mix. Metafictive! Kind of! . . . We’re like an accidental Charlie Kaufman).

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This group of work dates from the1880s through the 1940s; in August, curators will hit the reset button and put up another round  of self-portraits from the collection, this time from the 50s through today.

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Ayo Technology

Lauren’s post on the awesome World Digital Library reminded us of another impressive online art collection, Google Earth’s Masterpieces of the Prado. These images weigh in at 14,000 megapixels, meaning you get closer to works by Dürer, Bosch, and Reubens in Google Earth than you would be able to in person. It’s pretty remarkable—you can see brushtrokes and cracks in the oil paint, but never any pixelation.

Definitely best viewed in full screen Google Earth mode, but you can also check out some of these massive images in Google Maps.

READ THE SUN

Unlike everybody else, we dislike advertisements. We know. We’re taking a controversial position, but bear with us here.

We kind of think that economics is about as much of a science as witch doctoring. The world economy is short-circuiting right now because everyone went along with the sage advice of the financial gurus who thought up mortgage-backed securities and cutting bad debt up into traunches that could be sold as good debt . . . and on and on.
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As we understand it (full disclosure: we don’t understand it) one of the cornerstones of capitalism is that people act rationally and in their own self-interest, and even if capitalism stratifies the classes and ruins the earth with a consumptive ethos, we can at least reap the rewards of the generative engine of the free market. Innovation and production of wealth, blah blah blah. OK, fine, don’t love it, but at the moment, we’re too much of a wimp to rage against this machine.

But here’s the problem. Advertisements. FUCKING LIE. THEY LIE SO HARD. So how are the discrete constituents (consumers) of a capitalist system supposed to make these rational decisions in their own self-interest if they’re bombarded with disingenuous images so often repeated that even the savviest of media consumers aren’t immune to their charms? And don’t give us that dreck arguing against Galbraith’s dependence effect, like this professor CSPU does: “needs, wants, tastes, and demand all originate within the consumer. A sign that says “Lemonade—5¢” cannot create a desire for the product if the consumer is not thirsty or does not like lemonade.”

stearnsWe’re not sure if this guy’s a moron or a liar but this is the Internet so we’re prepared to call him both. An ad can do exactly that fucking thing. It can create want. Absolutely it can. Are you telling us that fashion fetishists really just ‘need’ new clothes? No, they want the clothes that an adjacency in Vanity Fair has advertised. Are you seriously saying that Hammacker Schemmler’s products exist to fulfill needs that people already have prior to reading their catalogue on an airplane?

What we’re trying to argue here is that we really hate how the axiom of capitalism is that people act rationally, but then the organizations trying to sell us product don’t permit us to act rationally. They force us to act emotionally, out of lust or fear or greed. Even the way that TV ads are produced is designed to evoke emotional (as opposed to rational) response—audio in commercials is compressed in such a way that ads sound louder than TV programs. It’s harder to act “rationally” when you’re being sonically bombarded.
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We know, we know, this argument is tired and it’s been argued more coherently with more intellectual rigor by everyone from Naomi Klein to Adbusters, but all we’re trying to say is that misleading advertisements—and that’s almost all of them—aren’t fair, and they undermine a tenet of the system they’re nominally trying to prop up. It’s weird and despicable, like a skinhead on a unicycle. What.

What we hate a lot less are ads that just level with you, and there’s a good’un by Louis Rhead in the Met’s Rockefeller Hall (remember? This blog concerns museums!) It says, in its entirety, “READ THE SUN.” That’s it. Just a straightforward command: no emotional manipulation, no lies-by-omission, no disingenuous viral marketing, no false dichotomies, no lazily pregnant double-entendre. With this ad, we know where we stand, and we’re able to decide whether or not to comply with the all-caps instruction.

The rest of the ads in the hall use the same selling-of-dreams tactic that modern commercials do. But the hell with it. Our screed above doesn’t account for the fact that we’re pushovers Art Nouveau prints. The ham-fisted directive of Edward Penfield’s 1896 “Ride a Stearns and be Content” is pretty fun.  We also like the trompe-l’Å“il tiles on E. Pickert’s February 9, 1895 poster for the  New York Times, the rich colors in Rhead’s lithograph for Le Journal de la Beauté, and the way the lady is frenching a peacock on the cover of Will H. Bradley’s woodcut cover for his typography magazine.

Not much more to say on these guys. As Penfield wrote, “A design that needs study is not a poster no matter how well it is executed.”
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Sidenote: it’s the mark of a phenomenal collection when the hallways taking you from one gallery to the next are themselves packed with terrific art. A recent AP article on museum attendance spiking in this down economy states that, “At any given time, most museums display only 1 percent of [their] collections.” Let’s ramp that up, shall we? Per Andy’s bathroom post, we advocate for putting some of the works currently in storage in the Met’s bowels and annexes on the walls of the restroom.

The Rockefeller Hall

Highlights: All of them. Large-format Art Nouveau lithographs.

Memorable Quote: “READ THE SUN”

Next week: Self-Portraits in the Modern Mezzanine