A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy 2012!

Each new year opens with a sense of optimism.  "This year, everything will go right."  What this involves is different for everyone, but we all want happiness and security.  New year celebrations go back to Roman times when this day and month was dedicated to Janus, the god of doors and beginnings.  Janus had two faces on opposite sides of his head, looking forward and backward.  Thus another one of our celebrations has its beginnings in pagan traditions.

An as of Janus (Roman coin).

The January 1st date became New Year's Day when the Gregorian calendar was adopted.  Cultures that use other calendars still celebrate the new year, the most famous of which is probably Chinese New Year.  Hindu new year is in mid-April. Nowruz celebrates both the new year and the beginning of spring, and has been observed for over 3,000 years in Central Asia, South Asia, Northwestern China, Crimea, and other areas where ancestors were Zoroastrian.  The Islamic new year is moveable since their calendar is lunar.

Half Sīn, the traditional table setting of Nowruz.

A significant part of the Western new year celebration is the making of resolutions - a commitment to a goal, often the changing of a habit.  A resolution stands out from other goals made because of the new beginnings aspect of the new year, thus a resolution may mark a change in a new direction.

A recent study showed that while 52% of the participants expected success in keeping their resolutions, only 12% actually did.  It is suggested that goals be made in baby steps - say one pound a week instead of 20 pounds total if one is working on weight loss.  Getting support from family and friends help, although making your goals public can backfire if people, intentionally or not, try to undermine you.

However you celebrate, whether you make resolutions or not, may the new year bring you positive things, and all changes be for the best!
Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Waxing Artistically for History

The Beatles at Madame Tussauds, London.

Wax sculptures have been made since the Middle Ages, although there is some evidence that wax was used for making death masks in ancient Rome.  During the Middle Ages wax figures were made as votive offerings to churches, and wax masks were made of monarchs and important people.  This is when the superstition began of sticking pins in wax figures to cause harm to whoever was represented.

Pouring wax into molds is an ancient practice.  What developed was the modeling
of colored waxes into masks and figures.  Image courtesy of www.dipity.com.

During the Italian Renaissance, wax modeling was used to create medallions and other types of metalwork.  Antonio Abondio, a famous medalist, made wax relief portraits in miniature.  Only thirteen survive.  Moulage, the modeling of human anatomical parts, used wax as its medium (later replaced by latex and rubber), and was first practiced in Florence to teach anatomy at this time.

Kaiserin Anna von Tirol by Antonio Abondio, 1618.

By the end of the 1700s medallion portraits and relief groups became very popular in Europe.  Polychromatic works, of the kind made popular by Abondio, were more prevalent, and many of the artists were women.  John Flaxman did many portraits and figural reliefs that Josiah Wedgwood used in his famous pottery.

The Flaxman Gallery in the octagon building of the main library
at the University College London.

Works made of wax were and are often considered a lower form of art.  But they have become popular in the images of celebrities and other famous people.  This has evolved into wax museums which feature wax figures in lifelike poses.  The more horrific characters of a wax museum are usually in special rooms where they are exhibited in a "chamber of horrors".

Wax heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Carrier,  Hébert, and
Robespierre are in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds
London site.  Image courtesy of flickr.

One of the most famous of these museums is Madame Tussauds, originally in London but now with branches in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Dubai, Blackpool, Manchester, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Amsterdam, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, Hollywood, New York City, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. Madame Tussaud created her first permanent site on Baker Street in London in 1835.  Madame Tussaud was a wax sculptor herself who created her first work, a figure of Voltaire, in 1777.  She also did figures of Ben Franklin and Rousseau.

A figure of Madame Tussaud greets
entrants to the London site.

She learned her trade from a doctor for whom her mother was a housekeeper, and when he died she inherited his collection of wax models.  She made models during the French Revolution of many of the victims of Madame Guillotine, reportedly searching through the corpses to find decapitated heads.  She eventually took to the road, exhibiting her collection throughout Europe.  Once settled into a permanent place on Baker Street, she planned and coined the phrase "chamber of horrors".

Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders, as well as Lady Gaga, Queen
Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, and Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow (below)
can be seen at the London Site.

There are a few of her sculptures left, but there was fire damage in 1925 and German bombs in 1941, destroying most of the older figures.  She died in 1850, but her grandson moved the museum to a new building he commissioned on Marylebone Road, which opened in 1884.  Although it was very successful, financial problems and family squabbles led to the sale of the enterprise to a group. Still a major tourist attraction in London the museums are now owned by Merlin Entertainments, and have grown to include royals, sports heroes, stars of all media, and famous murderers.

This figure is in Madame Tussauds London museum.
This statue, unveiled in 1933, has been frequently
vandalized and a 1936 replacement has been carefully
guarded.  In 2008, the Hitler statue in the Berlin
museum was decapitated by a man who later confessed
it was done on a bet.  It has since been repaired.

The premiere wax museum in the U.S. was the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, California.  It opened in 1962 and featured models of famous show business personalities.  Stars would attend the unveilings of their wax figures, but attendance dwindled, and the museum closed in 2005.

The Hollywood Wax Museum opened in 1965, and claims to be the only wax museum dedicated to celebrities.  It has 180 wax figures of movie and television stars as well as other characters, such as Nintendo's Mario.  In 1985 another was built in Branson, Missouri.  (A 2007 museum built in Gatlinburg, Tennessee soon closed.)

The Hollywood Wax Museum on Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood.

There are many wax museums all over the world, and more are being erected, especially in the last few years.  An interesting way to record and show the people who have made and are making history, even if it is sometimes gruesome.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Art Deco's Most Famous Artist

A part of "Wisdom, with Light and Sound" that is over
the entrance of the GE Building in New York City.
(30 Rockefeller Center.)  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Art Deco was an art movement that began in Paris in the 1920s, and became internationally popular up until WWII.  It was a style that encompassed all areas of design, from fashion to graphic arts to architecture.  It was notably different from the curves and organic forms of Art Nouveau, the movement that preceded it.  A hallmark of Art Deco was symmetry and linear forms.  Drawing from ancient art and cubism and modernism, it was purely decorative without philosophical or political import.  There is one artist who embodied and defined the ornamental style of Art Deco.

L'arc en Ciel, 1929.  Harper's Bazaar cover design.

His name was Romain de Tirtoff, although he was called Roman Petrovich Tyrtov in his native Russia.  He was born in St. Petersburg in 1892 to an admiral of the Russian fleet.  He became famous as an artist with the pseudonym of Erté - the French pronunciation of his intials, R. T.  He used the pseudonym to avoid disgracing his family, which expected that he become a naval officer.

Costume design, 1923, for "The Marriage of Figaro"
for the Chicago Opera Company.
Costume design, 1923, "Woman with Wings"
for the Folies Bergère.

When he was a young boy he became intrigued with Persian miniatures he found in his father's library.  He created his first costume when he was five. The exotic and brightly-colored patterns and designs influenced his style.  He had a profound influence on the entire Art Deco movement.  He forged a new path when he was 75, working in bronze and serigraphy.  This brought about a rebirth in popularity of Art Deco in the 1960s, which was a boost for him as he had become relatively obscure in the 1940s and 1950s.  This was the time of WWII, and people sought more practical things.

"Cleopatre" produced in 1986.

"Samson and Delilah" produced in 1980.

He moved to Paris to begin a career as a designer in his twenties.  His career took off with his work for Harper's Bazaar magazine, where he designed over 200 covers between 1915 - 1937.  He also did illustrations for other magazines, including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal.

"Aquarium", 1923, cover for Harper's Bazaar.

"Seagulls", 1938, cover for Harper's Bazaar.

Soon he was doing fashion design and creating stage sets.  His costumes and program designs were featured in the Folies Bergère and the Ziegfield Follies.  This was the 1920s and the Art Deco movement was in full swing.  His work captures the giddy spirit of the "Roaring Twenties".

"Mermaids" from 1926.

Curtain design from "The Oriental Ballet", 1925, while at MGM.

In 1920 he designed the costumes and set for a Marion Davies movie financed by William Randolph Hearst.  He went to Hollywood in 1925, to design sets and costumes for a silent film by Louis B. Mayer.  This film - Paris - had many problems with the script, so while this was being sorted out Erté worked on other projects, one of which was the film Ben-Hur.

"Ebony" a 1982 graphic.

The letter "L" from his alphabet, 1976.

During his "second career" in the 1960s, he also did jewelry, furniture, fabrics, interior designs, sculpture and produced limited edition prints.  His flamboyant style and his talents assured him longevity as an artist.  He died in 1990 at the age of 97, being one of those artists who knew fame and acclaim during his lifetime.  His work can be seen in museums and galleries all over the world.

His famous signature, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of www.erte.com.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Ultimate Monument to Love

Mumtaz Mahal, the face that launched a thousand
artisans.  Painting circa 17th-18th century.

Prince Khurram, the fifth and favorite son of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, was smitten when he first saw her in a bazaar.  He was fourteen years old.  He went home and told his father that he wanted to marry her.  Fortunately she was a Persian princess, Arjuman Banu Begum.  A marriage was arranged, but they had to wait five years for the auspicious date the court astrologers had chosen.  By all accounts they had a very close and loving relationship.   She went everywhere with him, even to battles.  He called her "Mumtaz Mahal" - "the jewel of the palace".  He had been named "Shah Jahan" ("King of the World") by his father for his victorious military campaigns.

Shah Jahan, "King of the World", standing on a globe.
Mid-17th century, Mughal dynasty.

Mumtaz Mahal, the third, and evidently most dearest, wife of Shah Jahan, died in 1631 giving birth to their 14th child while accompanying him on a military campaign.  In his grief he began construction on a mausoleum that would take 22 years to complete.  This monument - the Taj Mahal - is an internationally recognized architectural masterpiece.

The Taj Mahal.  Image courtesy of pbs.org.  When the complex is open to
the public, the walks and grass areas are filled with people.

It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.  It is the gold standard for Mughal architecture, a blend of Persian, Indian, and Turkish styles.  While the mausoleum is the most famous structure, it is actually part of a complex.  The 42-acre site borders on the Yamuna River in Agra, India, and is surrounded on the other three sides by crenellated red sandstone walls.  Red sandstone was the primary material that had been used in Mughal architecture, but Shah Jahan built the mausoleum of marbles from all over that part of the world and inlaid precious and semi-precious stones throughout.  His reign was quite peaceful and prosperous, and during a time when gems were being mined in great quantities.

An example of some of the art work made of inlaid stones.  When the
British were in India, parts were vandalized and the stones, especially
lapis lazuli, were taken.  The British government had repairs made.

The mausoleum is the central focus and is a symmetrical structure on a square plinth topped by a dome.  It has arch-shaped doorways and the corners are chamfered, creating an unequal octagon.  Each 180-foot  side has a vaulted archway, with two balconies on either side.  Each corner of the plinth has a minaret opposite the chamfered corners.  Inside the main chamber are the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, although they are buried at a lower level.  Since Shah Jahan's entombment was never planned, his cenotaph and casket in the mausoleum disrupts the symmetry found throughout.

These are the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan (left) and Mumtaz Mahal (right).

Part of the screen, or jali, which borders the cenotaphs, made of eight
marble panels with carved piecework.  Detail of the inlay shown below.

The real tombs are in a lower chamber with plain walls, in keeping with the
Islamic tradition prohibiting the elaborate decoration of graves.  Both bases
and caskets are inlaid with gems and have calligraphic inscriptions with verses
from the Qu'ran.  Mumtaz Mahal's casket is on the right, and the sides have the
ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah.  Shah Jahan's casket is larger and the lid of
his casket has a writing tablet and pen box,which are traditional funerary icons.

The marble dome is its most fabulous feature.  It is 115 feet high atop a 23-foot round pedestal.  The dome is called an onion dome, and typically their diameters are wider than the drum, or pedestal, that they stand on.  There are four smaller domes over the chamfered corners.  The finial on top was originally made of gold, but was replaced with one of gilded bronze in the early 1800s.  The finial is topped by a crescent moon with the horns pointed up.  This is a standard Islamic motif. The minarets are "working" minarets, used by the muezzin to call Muslims to prayer.  They are 130 feet tall, and each have two balconies dividing the minarets into equal parts.

The base, dome, and one of the four minarets.
The gilded brass finial.
One of the minarets.

Both interior and exterior decorations keep with the Islamic view that anthropomorphic forms are forbidden.  Instead floral or abstract forms are used and calligraphy is an important decorative element, especially passages from the Qur'an.  Much of the calligraphy is made of black marble or jasper, set into the white marble.  Geographic forms, such as herringbone and tesselations, are used throughout.

A column with herringbone.
Carved floral motif.

The inner decorations feature the precious and semi-precious gems.  Much of the art work within is in a smaller scale than the exterior.  The building is octagonal and planned to allow entry from all four sides, although the door leading to the garden is the only one used.

Inside the mosque's interior hall.

Outside of the tomb are two structures on the eastern and western walls that mirror each other.  On the western side is a mosque, featuring a long hall.  The opposite structure may have been a meeting room or guesthouse.  On the outside the two buildings are identical and balance each other symmetrically, but they are different inside.

The Complex:
1.  The Moonlight Garden (north of the Yamuna River).
2.  The Terrace area with mausoleum, mosque and guesthouse.
3.  The gardens with pavilions.
4.  The gateway, other tombs, and attendant accomodations.
5.  The bazaar area.

The gardens of the complex are meant to represent the Islamic idea of Paradise - a garden of abundance with four rivers flowing from the center (usually a spring or a mountain) separating the garden into quarter sections.  The garden south of the tomb (No. 3 in the above diagram) is 980 feet square.  Raised pathways divide each of the four quarters into 16 sunken beds.  A normal Muslim garden is rectangular with a tomb or pavilion in the center, but this garden has a raised marble water tank central instead, and a pool on the north-south axis which reflects the mausoleum beautifully.  Early accounts of the garden describe an abundance of flowers and fruit trees, but as the Mughal Empire declined so did the garden. When the British took over the management of the site during their occupation of India, they redid the garden in a British style with lawns instead.

An artist's rendering of the complex, circa 1790-1810.

On the other side of the Yamuna River is the "Moonlight Garden".  It is thought that the river was intended to be part of the design as one of the rivers of Paradise. It, too, was replanted with lawns.  There is a myth that Shah Jahan planned a black marble mausoleum for himself across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal, but that has never been proven.

A view of the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River.

Calligraphy is an important element in Islamic art, and throughout the complex passages of the Qu'ran are incorporated into the decorations.  The calligraphy was designed by Abd ul-Haq in 1609, and Shah Jahan gave him the title of "Amanat Khan" to show his esteem.  The calligrapher's modesty is revealed in an inscription inside at the base of the dome, "Written by the insignificant being, Amanat Khan Shirazi."

The Great Gate, the entrance to the complex.  It has calligraphy that says, "O Soul
thou art at rest.  Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you."

Outside the walls of the complex are more mausoleums, include those of Shah Jahan's other wives.  These are typical Muslim tombs, and are made of red sandstone.  There is a bazaar that used to sell trinkets and other small artifacts to support the upkeep of the complex until 1996.

A view from the Red Fort.

The construction of the complex was very involved and built in stages.  First was the mausoleum which took 12 years to complete.  Then the minarets, mosque, guesthouse, and gateway was built.  The ground was carefully prepared and fortified.  Instead of a bamboo scaffold, a brick one was built.  When the time came to dismantle it - a daunting project - Shah Jahan decided that anyone could keep the bricks of the scaffold, and the local population dismantled it overnight. Twenty thousand workers were employed - from sculptors and calligraphers, to stonecutters and specialists in all kinds of construction.  The total cost has been estimated to be 32 million rupees at that time.  This project supported many workers, artisans, and craftsmen.

Over a thousand elephants were used to haul the materials, which were from all over India and as far as Arabia and China.  Twenty-eight different types of precious and semi-precious stones were used for inlay.  After the complex was completed, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and put under house arrest at the Red Fort until his death.

The Taj Mahal as seen from the Red Fort.  Shah Jahan may have gazed
at it from this place when he was under house arrest.

Today the Taj Mahal is visited by between 2 and 4 million people yearly. Depending on the time of day, the Taj appears to be a different color every time you look at it. This is said to reflect the different moods of Woman.  The style of the architecture, the grounds, and the decorations feature many departures from traditional Mughal ones, and is still a topic of interest among art historians and scholars.  Almost four centuries later, it is an international symbol of undying love and devotion, and a simply beautiful reflection of one man's ideas, aesthetics, and emotions.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.