A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Latest

Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, V&A Museum

Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre,  © V&A Museum

Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, © V&A Museum

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the Japanese artist, was famous for his depictions of history and legends. The scene shown here is from a popular novel called the Story of Uto Yasutaka, that was written by Santo Kyoden in 1807. Princess Takiyasha was the daughter of the warlord Taira no Masakado who started a rebellion against the Emperor of Japan in Kyoto. However his rebellion was put down in 939 AD  and Masakado was killed. After his death, Princess continued to live in the ruined palace of Soma. This print shows the scene when the emperor’s official, oya Mitsukini comes to search for any surviving conspirators. The princess is reciting a spell written on a handscroll. She summons up a giant skeleton that appears out of a black void, crashing through the tattered palace blinds with its bony fingers to menace Mitsukini and his companion.

The skeleton shows Kuniyoshi’s knowledge of anatomy. The artist probably referred to a book that depicted Western anatomical drawings. Prints like this are made by carving a patterns onto a wooden block, that is then printed onto paper or fabric. The artist has used several woodblocks to create this print, using one block for each colour. Kuniyoshi has used the triptych format to create a dramatic effect, spreading the large forms across three sheets.

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, National Gallery

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, © National Gallery

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, © National Gallery

Van Gogh is one of the most famous impressionist painters of his time. He was born in the Netherlands in 1853. He worked as an art dealer in the Hague for a while and then moved to Paris in 1885. In 1888 Van Gogh left Paris with aspirations to paint the brilliant sunshine of the South of France. He rented a house in Arles, called ‘The Yellow House’, and invited his friend Paul Gauguin to join him. Van Gogh painted a series of sunflowers to decorate his friend’s bedroom, before he arrived. To him they represented optimism and the glorious colours of Southern France.

The transient nature of the sunflowers, which began to wilt and fade within hours, required a rapid approach to painting. He used very thick paint, applying it in textured strokes and sometimes used the handle of the brush to score into the surface. He also put fresh paint onto areas that were already wet. He wrote enthusiastically to his brother Theo :

‘I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse (a traditional French stew), which won’t surprise you when you know that, what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on for the flowers fade so quickly.’

Van Gogh and Gauguin worked together throughout autumn 1888. Sadly the collaboration was not a happy one. Their arguments contributed to Van Gogh’s mental breakdown and to Gauguin’s departure. Van Gogh was committed to an asylum near Arles. And this brings us to the story of Van Gogh’s ear.  He painted a self-portrait of himself with a bandaged ear in 1889.

The official story is that he cut off a part of his ear (not the whole ear) with a razor after a row with Paul Gauguin in 1888. Bleeding heavily, Van Gogh then walked to a brothel and presented the piece of ear to an astonished prostitute called Rachel, before going home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed.

Two German academics have come up with an entirely different story. Hans Kaufman and Rita Wildegans suggest that the inconsistencies in Gauguin’s accounts imply that he was not telling the truth. Gauguin was a champion fencer and they suggested that Gauguin sliced off Van Gogh’s ear with a sword. Whatever the truth of the matter, most academics regard the self-mutilation story as the most plausible.

Caste of ‘David’ by Michelangelo, V&A Museum

Michelangelo's David, © V&A Museum

Michelangelo’s David, © V&A Museum

This plaster caste of Michelango was taken from the original statue which dates to around 1501, and is in Florence, Italy. The caste of Michelangelo was presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857. She donated it to the V&A Museum. Apparently when Queen Victoria first saw the statue of ‘David’, she was so shocked at his nakedness that she commissioned a fig leave to be made to cover up his private parts. The fig leaf was made to be proportionally accurate and it was designed so that it could be hung on the figure using two hooks. It was kept in readiness for any royal visits to preserve the Queen’s modesty. At the  time male nudity was quite a contentious issue. In 1903 Mr Dobson sent a letter to the museum complaining about the statues: ‘One can hardly designate these figures as “art”. If it is, it is a very objectionable form of art.’

Fig Leaf, © V&A Museum

Fig Leaf, © V&A Museum

Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he accepted the commission for the Cathedrale of Florence in 1501. He was at this time one of the best paid and most famous artists of his time. The Cathedrale of Florence had already asked two other sculptures to create the ‘David’ sculpture. The project was started in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and when he gave up, Antonio Rossellino took over in 1475. Both artists refused to work on the enormous block of marble because it had too many imperfections, which may have threatened the stability of the statue. But Michelangelo was unfazed by such an enormous task. It took him two years to create the original sculpture in beautiful white marble. 

The statue shows David, the biblical hero carrying his slingshot over his shoulder before he begins his battle with the mighty Goliath. Goliath has offered to determine the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Isrealites with a single combat battle. David steps up to the challenge and defeats Goliath by hurling a stone from his slingshot which hits him in the centre of his forehead. David then cuts off his head and stands triumphantly. With a single shot he has won the battle between the Philistines and the Isrealites.

Gold Warrior Pendant, British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant,  © British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant, © British Museum

This intricate warrior figurine recaptures the image of a fierce Mixtec warrior. The warrior wears a lip plug, from which hangs a severed head, which maybe a war trophy. From the head dangle three intricate bells. You can almost imagine the warrior fiercely tinkling into battle.  Mixtec goldsmiths fashioned gold into prestigious objects to show off their wealth and prowess in battle. This warrior has a decorated crown, curved earrings, a nose piece, and pendant pectorals across his chest. On his left arm he carries a circular shield, and his right arm he carries a spear thrower. His elaborate regalia indicates that he is a high ranking warrior ruler.

Warfare was central to Aztec society. Its purpose was to take live captors for sacrifice to the Gods. Military accomplishment was highly prized by the Aztec warriors.  Aztec warriors improved their rank by capturing an ever increasing number of victims. The most distinguished warriors were the eagle and jaguar warriors whose dress represented these animals. The Aztecs were cosmopolitan in their tastes and they bought in high prestige goods such as gold from Mixtec artists in Oxaca. Mixtec artists would have visited Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec world, and they would have been encouraged to settle in Tenochtitlan.

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala was a circus performer famous throughout Europe for her amazing feats of strength. She was born in 1858, was christened Olga Kaira, and she started performing at the age of 9.  She was a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist and an accomplished acrobat. In this picture, she is being hoisted up towards the roof of the circus with a rope, which passes over a pulley. She is supporting her entire body weight by gripping the end of the rope with her teeth

In February 1879, she came to London to perform at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. In an amazing act of showmanship, she progressed from suspending a boy, a woman and then a man from her jaw, while hanging upside down. The finale was described in a newspaper at the time:

‘Her great feat, and that which should undoubtedly prove the sensation, comes at the end of her share of the entertainment. Six men strain their muscles to lift to her a cannon of no mean dimensions. This also she supports by her teeth alone, never leaving her hold even when, the match being applied, the gun is fired and gives a tremendous report.’

The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 in Paris, near Degas’ home. Degas does not focus on her as an individual, as he was more interested in capturing the spectacle of her body as she flew through the air. If you look closely, you can see that her arms and legs run parallel to the lines of the roof and the rope. Miss Lala is deliberately off centre. Degas was inspired by Japanese prints, which often placed their main subjects to one side and cropped them in dramatic ways.

He made many preparatory sketches for this painting, including oils, pastels and pencil sketches. An x-ray of this painting shows that Degas struggled to achieve the correct perspective for the roof. The x-ray shows that the figure of Lala was unchanged, but that the beams of the roof have been altered. The x-ray reveals three separate roof beams, which would have been his first attempt to paint the roof. Perhaps he decided that three beams would have crowded the composition with too much architectural detail. The two beams we can see in the painting are painted over the top.

When Walter Sickhart, an artist, visited the artist’s studio in the Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, he describes how Degas, ‘ had been unable to solve the problem of the perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’

Neptune and Triton, V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Alessandro Peretti,  the Cardinal Montalto, commissioned this impressive sculpture for the garden of his Villa in Rome. It formed the centre piece of a larger display of fountains and cascades, above a series of waterfalls that flowed into a large oval pond. Bernini was one of the most gifted and influential sculptors of the 17th century. He carved ‘Neptune and Triton’ within a year, between 1622 and 1623. In classical mythology Neptune was the god of the seas and his son Triton was a merman. Neptune stands tall bearing his trident, while Triton sits beneath him blowing through a conch shell. Originally the conch shell projected a single jet of water, and the piping still remains inside. Neptune and Triton are portrayed with great exuberance, as though they are commanding the seas, which would have been represented by the pond.

This scene may represent the mythological story from Ovid’s Metamoprhosis, Book 1. In the story Jupiter, the King of the Gods in Roman mythology becomes enraged with humanity and considers scorching the earth with fire. He decides to flood the world instead, and asks his brother Neptune to help. Neptune commands the seas and the river gods to flood the world. All the world is flooded except for two people who stand on a mountain peak. Jupiter regrets his decision and calls the seas back to spare their lives. Neptune orders Triton to blow his conch shell into the winds to summon the waters to retreat.

Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

The British Museum collection began with the intellectual curiosity of an Irish doctor called Sir Hans Sloane. He began collecting when he was working in Jamaica, as a physician to the governor. He returned to London in 1689 and continued collecting. He was a very wealthy and successful doctor. His patients included the diarist Samuel Pepys and Queen Anne. Soon his house in Bloomsbury place was overflowing with ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities …prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts.’ His collecting got so out of control that he had to buy the house next door. When that house was full he moved to a new house in Chelsea!

He collected strange and wonderful objects, such as a landscape painted in a spider’s web, and monstrous stones removed from the bladder of a horse. In spite of all of this there was some order to his collecting. You can see in the Enlightenment gallery the types of classification that were used in the intellectual flowering that was the Enlightenment period; such as natural history, religion etc. When Hans Sloane died his collection of 80,000 objects was acquired by the British government for the sum of £20,000.

Horace Walpole, one of the trustees of the British Museum said, ‘You will scarce guess how I employ my time. Chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir Hans Sloane is dead and has made me one of the trustees of the museum…He valued it at four score thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear and spiders as big as geese!’ The British Museum at Montagu House opened its doors to the public in 1759.

Mosaic Skull Mask, British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

The Aztecs practised several forms of human sacrifice. They are famous for sawing open the chest of the victim with a knife, removing the still palpitating heart and holding it up to the gods. Skulls of sacrificial victims were placed on ‘skull’ racks. This skull of a thirty year old man has been decorated with stripes of bright blue turquoise and black lignite mosaic. The skull has been cut along the frontal bone to remove the back portion, leaving only the front portion. The eyes are made from polished discs of iron pyrites set in circles of white shell. The skull may represent the creator god Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror.’  Tezcatlipoca was the patron of the night sky, the great bear, highwaymen, sorcerers and warriors.

The skull is lined with deerskin and has long deerskin straps. The moveable lower jaw is attached to the lining with a hinge. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red thorny oyster shell. The skull would have been worn as part of priestly regalia. The turquoise, lignite and pyrite were all brought from the furthest reaches of the Aztec Empire and beyond.

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens

The Judgement of Paris by  Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

Peter Paul Reubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1577, and when he was 10 years old he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his parents. He was described as a likeable chap, with  ‘a tall stature, a stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, chestnut brown hair, sparkling eyes but with passion restrained, a laughing air, gentle and courteous’.

He ran a large studio in Antwerp, which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe. Reubans was also a classically trained scholar, an art collector and a diplomat. He was knighted by Philip IV, the King of Spain and Charles I, King of England.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53 year old painter married the 16 year old Hélène Fourmant. His young wife was the inspiration for the sensuously painted female goddesses in this painting. This painting brings to life the stories from ancient Greek legends.

Paris, the seated gentlemen in the blue robe, is the son of Priam, the King of Troy. Paris was abandoned as a baby by his father, because of a prophecy that he would bring ruin to the city of Troy. Priam was rescued by sheperds who raised him as one of their own. Mercury the messenger with his winged hat, has brought Paris to judge a beauty contest between the three godesses. Minerva, on the far right tried to bribe Paris, by offering him wisdom and skill in war. She stands next to a shield which bears the monstrous Medusa with her hair of snakes. One look from Medusa would turn anyone to stone. Venus, the Goddess of love, the second from right, offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Juno stands with a peacock, and tries to tempt Pais with the promise of power and wealth.

Paris chooses Venus and offers her the prize, a golden apple. He then goes on to abduct Helen of Troy, stealing her away from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. This starts the disastrous Trojan Wars.

Double Headed Serpent, British Museum

Double Headed Serpent,  © British Museum

Double Headed Serpent, © British Museum

This striking Aztec double headed serpent would have been worn to ceremonial occasions as an ornament across the chest. It is carved out of a single piece of Spanish cedar wood, and decorated with beautiful turquoise mosaics, which come in a variety of colours. The open jaws have menacing fangs, which are made of conch shell. The red gums and details are made from thorny oyster shell.

Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs. They thought that snakes were powerful creatures that could travel between the different layers of cosmos; between the underworld, water and the sky. Serpents were also associated with fertility, and with water. Snakes shed their skin every year, which may have been linked with the idea of renewal and transformation. The Aztecs worshipped many different serpent Gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and Coatlicue, she of the serpent skirt.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1519. The Spanish expedition was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma who gave them gifts. This double headed serpent may have been one of the gifts given to Cortez and his men. The Aztecs had a tradition that the god – king of their ancestors, a pale skinned bearded god would return one day to claim their land. The Spanish became greedy after receiving the gifts and were not so friendly. After bitter fighting the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,166 other followers