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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Drawn from Paradise by Richard Attenborough and Errol FullerDrawn from Paradise: The discovery, art and natural history of the birds of paradise, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins 2012)

A book about feats for the eyes that also is a feast for the eyes. The second set of eyes are human; the first are avine – specifically, the eyes of female birds of paradise. The gorgeous plumage of the males has been created by female preference over many generations. The more attractive a male’s feathers and the more energetically and skilfully he displays, the more likely he has been to mate and leave offspring. As the most attractive males in each generation are selected, so the features that make them attractive grow ever more exaggerated, even – or especially – if they become a handicap in escaping predators and so on.

Darwin called this “sexual selection” and it’s most famous in the peacock. Peahens are drab and inconspicuous by comparison, but they are the driving force for the spectacular feathers of the male. If peacocks didn’t exist, would any artist have been able to create them? I don’t think so. The same goes for the birds of paradise: it’s not just their beauty and extravagance that are astonishing. So is their variety. Some have golden feathers, some have scarlet, some have celestial blue. Some have plumes, some ruffs, some sprays, some wires and some “flank feathers” that rise “to form a perfect ellipse”, framing the male’s head during courtship (ch. 6, “The Sicklebills”, pg. 142).

That’s the brown sicklebill, Epimachus mayeri. The superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba, does something even stranger, raising a cape of feathers on its back to create a kind of cone around its head, in the shadow of which two white head-feathers glimmer like eyes. But it wasn’t until artists saw these birds in the wild that they knew precisely how to represent them. Before that, they’d used guesswork and inevitably got many things wrong. For a long time, as Attenborough describes, artists were working from dead specimens, sometimes traded several times before they reached Europe and sometimes lacking their wings and feet. This gave rise to the legend that the birds floated rather than flew, living permanently in the sky till they died and fell to earth. Hence the name “birds of paradise”:

In 1522 the first of many, many bird of paradise plumes arrived in Europe. Within just months they attracted the attention of a celebrated artist, Hans Baldung Grien. His picture may have been a comparatively flimsy affair, but it began a tradition among artists that has continued to this day. The list of artists who have felt compelled to paint or draw birds of paradise is studded with some illustrious names: Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Millais. Then there are men who actually specialised in painting birds: [Jacques] Barraband, [Josef] Wolf, [William] Hart, [John] Gould, [John Gerrard] Keulemans. And, of course, there are modern painters. Walter Weber produced a series of iconic images for The National Geographic magazine during the early 1950s. William T. Cooper illustrated two major monographs on birds of paradise, and Raymond Ching is known throughout the world for his poetic and highly charged paintings. (Introduction, pg. 32)

The work of these artists illustrates the book. There are no photographs, just paintings, drawings and engravings from the six centuries during which Europeans have been fascinated and dazzled by the Paradisaeidea. Errol Fuller, the co-author of the book, is one of the artists. He’s a skilful painter, but he has to be: birds of paradise are challenging subjects, the visual equivalent of a complicated piece for violin or piano. An artist has to have full command of colour and line. The artists here do: you can almost smell the jungle in some modern paintings.

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis


But that realism is the influence of photography and of personal observation. The Frenchman Jacques Barraband (1761-1809) never got to Papua New Guinea or northern Australia, so he never saw the living birds, but he remains one of the great paradiseans, able to bring dead specimens to life on canvas. The biographical section at the end of the book, describing “People Associated with the Discovery and Visual Representation of Birds of Paradise”, says this:

Despite the incredible beauty of his images, and the great influence they have had, comparatively little is known of Jacques Barraband and it has not proved possible to find a portrait of him. He was the son of a weaver, and it seems he worked originally as a tapestry designer at Gobelin’s, and later turned his hand to decorating porcelain at the famous factory in Sèvres. (pg. 236)

So we know he existed, but we don’t have an image of him. The opposite applies to some birds of paradise: we have images, but don’t know whether they ever existed. Some paintings and drawings are mysterious. Are they are invented or based on real specimens that are now lost? Birds of paradise often hybridize, adding more phantasmogoric variety to the family, and a few species may have gone extinct or be awaiting re-discovery.

Those are tantalizing prospects, but the biological interest of this book isn’t confined to birds. The biographical section at the back contrasts with what’s gone before. Birds of paradise come in many colours and shapes, but the “People Associated with” their “Discovery and Visual Representation” are overwhelmingly white males of northern European ancestry. They’re the ones who have created the beautiful art and run the enormous risks. New Guinea has always been a dangerous place, with its fast rivers, mountainous terrain, violent tribes and tropical diseases. That’s why it attracted one of the twentieth century’s greatest adrenalin-junkies:

Adventurer, bar-fly, beachcomber, boxer, brawler, drifter, entertainer, freedom fighter, lover, platypus and bird fancier, prospector, self-confessed thief, sailor, writer, Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn [1909-59] packed every conceivable human activity into his whirlwind tour through life. He starred in almost 60 films, wrote two novels and an autobiography, before dying at the comparatively early age of 50 from the effects of a totally worn-out body. (pg. 240)

I was surprised to find Errol Flynn here, but his presence and the quote about collecting birds of paradise from his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) make the book even stranger and even more satisfying to read. White men like Flynn are as spectacular for their achievements as male birds of paradise are for their plumage. Perhaps sexual selection explains both sets of phenomena. Certainly some kind of evolution does, because genetics are responsible for the feats of both. There is much more to this book than birds, but phantasmagoric feathers are why it’s such a feast for the eyes.

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Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

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The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger


But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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Freshwater Fish ed. by Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-ArayaThe Complete Illustrated Guide to Freshwater Fish & River Creatures, Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-Araya (Hermes House 2011)

Fresh-water fish are special in part because fresh water seemingly isn’t. It’s the transparent stuff that human beings drink and bathe in. It’s an everyday thing that, in most parts of the world, falls regularly from the sky. And yet very strange creatures live in it: fish, which breathe water and drown in air. That inversion of normality doesn’t seem so remarkable in the sea: the saltiness of the water doesn’t seem to contradict the strangeness of the citizens, as it were. Instead, saltiness and citizens go together.

The difficulty of keeping a marine aquarium seems appropriate too. What else should you expect? But a freshwater aquarium seems special in part because it’s so simple. Even if the water has to be heated, it still seems everyday, like bathwater. But it’s bathwater with aliens in it.

In truth, of course, it’s human beings who are the aliens. Water is where life began. Fish are still there, breathing in the natural way, not the unnatural one. The ocean is the womb of life and when life left the ocean, it had to find ways to re-create it. Blood is a portable ocean and human beings have gills for a time when they’re embryos. We were fish once. Fish still are. But they’ve continued to evolve and to find new habitats. As the introduction to this book points out, moving from the sea to fresh water is like moving from a continent to an island. The world shrinks and fresh-water fish don’t generally have such big ranges as marine ones. Some species are confined to single rivers or single lakes or even single pools, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and desiccation.

But some fish can survive desiccation:

West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens

This fish inhabits temporary swamps and floodplains. When these habitats start to dry, the fish buries itself in the mud and secretes a thin layer of slime around its body. This dries to form a fragile cocoon which helps to maintain moisture. By slowing its body metabolism, it can survive within this cocoon for a year or more, although it normally re-emerges within a few months, when the rains return. … Once the water within its burrow has [evaporated] it relies entirely on its primitive lung to obtain oxygen. (“Africa: Knifefish, Elephantfish, Bichir and Lungfish”, pg. 157)

So lungfish are a step towards life on land. Elsewhere, other fish step in other directions. Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel of South America, isn’t truly an eel but is truly alien. It uses electricity both as a weapon and as a sense, because it lives where vision isn’t always useful: in the “calm, turbid waters” of streams, rivers and swamps (“South America: Sharks, Rays, Sawfish and Electric Eel”, pg. 127). Some cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes entirely, like Typhlichthys subterraneus, the southern cavefish of Tennessee and Kentucky (pg. 111).

But Toxotes chatareus, the archerfish of Asia and northern Australia, has excellent eyesight, because it can squirt jets of water and “shoot insects” from overhanging branches up to five feet away: “Once it has knocked its target into the water it darts across to snap it up” (“Asia and Oceania: Other Perch-Like Fish”, pg. 231).

This makes it popular with some aquarists. Other fish are popular for their appearance, not their behaviour. Fresh-water fish can’t match the range of colour and patterns found in salt-water fish, but a shoal of neon or cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon innesi and P. axelrodi, is like a cloud of swimming jewels. Surprisingly for such a well-known aquarium fish, the neon tetra is restricted “in the wild to the tributary streams of the Solimões River, which flows into the Amazon” (“South America: Tetras”, pg. 140).

The paintings here capture the beauty of both species: one of the good things about the natural history series to which this encyclopaedia belongs is that it uses paintings to illustrate the main text, not photography. Capturing the shine, shape and colour of fish is a challenge to artists, so when they meet the challenge their art rewards the observer. The amphibians, reptiles and mammals also covered here are less challenging, so less rewarding, but they’re few in number and fish dominate the book. I like that dominance and I like the maps that open each geographic section. Rivers and lakes are prominently marked, from the Amazon to the Mississippi, from the Nile to the Euphrates, from Lake Victoria to the Caspian Sea. There’s lots of interesting information here and lots of attractive art.

Fish are strange creatures and that strangeness seems to strengthen in that everyday liquid we call fresh water. But water is strange too, wherever you find it and whatever it tastes like. It’s still being studied, still throwing up surprises, despite the simplicity of its composition: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. We should remember that as we read books like this.

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Rise of the Super Furry Animals by Ric RawlinsRise of the Super Furry Animals, Ric Rawlins (The Friday Project 2015)

It’s hard to believe that the Super Furry Animals were ever signed to Creation Records. They write intelligent, inventive, innovative and attractive music. They don’t take themselves seriously. If you take the number of eyebrows in the band and divide by the number of people in the band, you usually get two. In short, Super Furry Animals are completely unlike Oasis.

But you’ll learn from this book that the money Creation made from Oasis was a big help to SFA. It’s a bit like manure and roses. And to be fair, Creation were about much more than Oasis. If you read this book, you’ll want to be fair. Like SFA’s music, it encourages you to be happy, not mean-spirited. SFA are about fun and phantasmagoria. Black Sabbath got their kicks by setting their drummer on fire. SFA get theirs like this:

Eight miles away, the army tank rolled over the hill. Attached to its missile turret were twin speakers pumping out a steady techno groove. The tank had been painted bright psychedelic blue, with thick yellow letters spelling out a simple question above its headlights: ‘A OES HEDDWCH?’ (Prologue, pg. 3)

The question is translated in a footnote: “Is there peace?” It seems simple in English, which is why seeing it in Welsh is a useful reminder of how strange language is. Geographically, Welsh exists right beside English. Linguistically, it’s on the opposite side of the globe, if not off the planet altogether. If Salvador Dalí had ever painted a language, it might have looked rather like Welsh. SFA have taken a lot of drugs, but the strangest they’ve ever taken is Welsh.

Apart from water, which is the strangest – and strongest – drug of all. They absorbed both with their mothers’ milk, because Welsh is their first language. But they’re not militant or exclusionary about it. Some Welsh-language Puritans have condemned them for singing in English. SFA want to communicate with as many people as possible. But not communicating is a kind of communication too. SFA have fun with their music and fun with their mother-tongue. In his “Furry File”, the drummer Dafydd Ieuan lists his “first song-writing attempt” as something from 1979 called “Llanaelhaearn Lleddf (Blues)”.

They used Welsh in the early part of their career, playing as Ffa Coffi Pawb (“Everybody’s Coffee Beans”), and this book is also useful as a primer to Welsh rock and indie. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Ankst Records were important in the rise of SFA. But so was their decision to use English. It meant that “some Welsh patriots considered the Furries to be culturally exiled”. But they’ve released albums entirely in Welsh, like Mwng (2000):

In one of the lighter moments on the record, the band found time to pursue their long-standing love of wordplay. ‘Drygioni’ is a song about good and evil duality; but the title is also funny to Welsh speakers, because ‘drygioni’ is phonetically close to the English word ‘drug’, though it usually translates as ‘mischief’ or ‘badness’. (ch. 17, pg. 177)

That use of Welsh is an extra layer for an extraordinary band. Or rather, it’s the first layer of all. Like most of their fans, Ric Rawlins is an outsider looking in on that part of their work, but he speaks their language perfectly, psychologically speaking. This book is a pleasure to read: no pretension, no obtrusive Guardianese, just lots of ideas and lots of entertainment. It seemed short, but there are a lot of crazy and cool characters here, from a golden-haired (and Welsh-speaking) Robert Plant to the Bohemian drug-dealer Howard Marks. Plus Robin Friday, “The Man [Who] Don’t Give a Fuck”. Or didn’t, during his brief but memorable footballing career.

There are a lot of strange and sometimes scary situations too, from driving in a techno-tank to partying in the Colombian jungle. You can also read about, and see, some of the art that has helped SFA become a unique but ever-evolving band. In the words of Gruff Rhys, Rise of the Super Furry Animals “sometimes hits on truths that are closer to what happened than what actually happened”.

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Mapping the World by Beau RiffenburghMapping the World: The Story of Cartography, Beau Riffenburgh (Carlton Books 2011, 2014)

A good map is like a swan on a river. Beneath the elegance there is a lot of effort. This book is about that effort: all the millennia of research and refinement that have gone into perfecting maps. Not that any map can be perfect. As Beau Riffenburgh explains here, there are always choices to be made: what do you put in, what do you leave out? And how do you represent spherical geometry on flat paper?

The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator came up with one famous answer to that question:

Mercartor’s major achievement came in 1569 with a new projection that represented a breakthrough in nautical cartography. Since known as the Mercator projection, it is cylindrical-like, with the meridians as equally spaced parallel lines and the lines of latitude as parallel, horizontal lines, which are spaced further apart as their distance from the equator increases. This projection is uniquely suited to navigation because a line of constant true bearing allows a navigator to plot a straight-line course. However, this projection grossly distorts geographical regions in high latitudes – thus Greenland is shown larger than South America, although it is actually less than one-eighth of the size. (“Cosmographies and the Development of Projection”, pg. 51)

So the map looks wrong, but leads right. So does the famous map of the London Underground, which ignores true distances and bearings: the designer Harry Beck made it look like an “electrical circuit, with straight lines and the inclusion of only one feature above ground – the Thames” (“Mapping for the Masses”, pg. 143). Maps are about abstraction: they condense and confine what people find interesting or important about the real world.

So minds mould maps and in writing about maps, Riffenburgh is also writing about culture and politics. About art too, because maps can be very beautiful things, sometimes deliberately, sometimes incidentally. Above all, however, he’s writing about mathematics. What was implicit from the beginning – the importance of maths in mapping – became more and more explicit, as he describes in the chapter “Men, Measurements and Mechanisms” (pp. 70-3). The men are drawn from the world’s most evil and energetic group: white Europeans. Galileo, Newton and Huygens are three of them: as they contributed to maths and science, they contributed to cartography.

Another man is the Yorkshire watchmaker John Harrison (1693-1776), the hero of Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995). He was a remarkable personality and looks it in the portrait here: proud, determined and self-possessed. He needed all those qualities to get his due. He invented a chronometer that kept accurate time on long voyages and enabled navigators to determine longitude, but British officialdom “made him wait years for all of his prize-money” (pg. 73).

Elsewhere the names are obscurer and the stories sometimes sadder:

In the history of cartography, few individuals stand out for their work in so many geographical regions and aspects of science as James Rennell. Born in Devon in 1742, Rennell went to sea at the age of 14, learned maritime surveying and then, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, received a commission in the Bengal Army as an engineer. … Equipped with quadrant, compass and chain, Rennell began a thorough and scientific survey of [Bengal’s] major river systems, roads, plains, jungles, mangrove forests and mountains. (“James Rennell: Mapping India, Africa and Ocean Currents”, pg. 86)

However, he “never fully recovered from a severe wound received in an ambush” and retired to London to produce his “masterpiece – A Map of Hindoostan, or the Mogul Empire” (1782/1788). But en route to England, he had an “extended stay in Southern Africa” and developed an interest in ocean currents. So he became a pioneering hydrographer too: his posthumous An Investigation of Currents of the Atlantic Ocean (1832) “is often considered to form the historical basis of the study of currents” (pg. 89).

Later in the century, the German August Petermann worked for the Royal Geographical Society and was appointed “Physical Geographer Royal” by Queen Victoria. His assistant John Bartholomew said “no one has done more than he to advance modern cartography”, but Petermann committed suicide in 1878 after returning to Germany (“Maps reach a wider audience”, pg. 132).

Nietzsche would not have approved. But I think he would have applauded this:

Perhaps the most remarkable nautical drawings of all, considering the conditions under which they were produced, were those of William Bligh, captain of the British ship HMAV [His Majesty’s Armed Vessel] Bounty in 1789. Following the infamous mutiny, Bligh and 18 loyal seamen were set adrift in the ship’s launch. During the next 47 days, Bligh navigated approximately 3,600 nautical miles (6,660 km) to Timor, with only one stop. Throughout the journey, which is considered one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of open-boat travel, Bligh kept a detailed log and made sketches of his course. (“Mapping Australia and the Pacific”, pg. 77)

His chart is reproduced here. Using anecdotes like that with serious analysis and intellectual history, Riffenburgh tells the story of cartography from Mesopotamia and before to the moon and beyond. The story of maps is the story of man: even pre-literate societies like the ancient Polynesians have used maps to record the sea and its currents. In Europe, maps have reflected every advance in technology, like printing and photography. But as they’ve responded to technology, they’ve altered the way we see and interact with reality. When you look at a map, there’s a whole world of exploration, endeavour and ingenuity just beyond its margins. Mapping the World is about that world: the margins of mapness without which the maps themselves would not exist. It’s a book to stimulate the mind and delight the eye.

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Flora by Sandra KnappFlora: An Artistic Voyage through the World of Plants, Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum 2014)

There’s a phantom at this floral feast: photography. How much did we lose when it became easy to capture accurate images of the world with a camera? How much do we continue to lose? The botanical drawings and paintings here are almost sacramental in their intensity: beautiful natural objects receive the care and attention they deserve. Wordsworth said this: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give | Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

The artists represented here understood what he meant. So does Sandra Knapp, the botanist who collects and commentates their art in this beautiful book. She complements it with serious science too as she discusses twenty broad groups of plants, from arums and water-lilies to palms and grasses, from daffodils and poppies to roses and morning-glories. Tulips too, whose vivid patterns are produced in an unusual way:

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

The fantastic red and purple feathers and flames that appear as if by magic on tulips are not the result of man’s interference with nature, but are a viral disease transmitted by aphids. […] There are many varied viral diseases of plants, but tulip-breaking virus is the only one known to increase the infected plants’ value. Tulip plants infected by tulip-breaking virus have blotchy, mottled leaves and intricate and finely patterned petals, and appear as if hand-painted in pure colour. The variegated effect is caused by interference of the virus in the plant’s production of anthocyanins (pigments responsible for producing the reds and blues of flowers), without which the background colour shows through, pure white or yellow. (“Tulips”, pg. 294)

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

But this book isn’t just about colourful and scented plants: it also covers conifers, with their odd and interesting cones. They include some of the largest plants on earth, like Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant redwood. The heathers, on the other hand, are often tiny and easy to overlook, but they can introduce some big themes:

There are more than 750 species of Erica in South Africa – with the proteas and restionads, they are one of the three main constituents of fynbos, the characteristic and wonderful vegetation of the Cape region. The Cape fynbos [Afrikaans for “fine bush”] has been described as a wonder of the world, a statement with which it is impossible to disagree. Imagine an area the size of Portugal or the state of Virginia with more than 8000 native species of flowering plants, more than half of which are endemic (found nowhere else on earth). (“Heathers”, pg. 255)

Flora is a fynboek, a “fine book”. Serious science, enchanting images, and literary quotes that range from Robert Burns and Ovid to Frank L. Baum and Zhu Pu: Sandra Knapp has combed archives, combined disciplines and created something worthy of its beautiful subjects.

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Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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A Face to the World by Laura Cumming
A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

An interesting, erudite and enlightening book. And I didn’t come to it hoping for the best: Laura Cumming “has been the art critic of The Observer since 1999”. The Observer is the Guardian-on-Sunday, and is more of the same. Only more so: it’s even more pretentious and more politically correct than its weekday partner. And sure enough, Cumming uses that special dialect of English known as Guardianese:

Jan Van Eyck was here. It is not strictly accurate in terms of tense, of course, for Van Eyck has to be right here now as he paints his story on the wall. (ch. 1, “Secrets”, pg. 20)


But it’s endurable Guardianese and I managed to read the whole text as I looked at all the pictures, which ranged from the heights of genius, like Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio, to the depths of dreck, like Philip Guston, Wyndham Lewis and Egon Schiele. I don’t think much of Van Gogh or Artemisia Gentileschi either. Gentileschi led a more interesting life than other female self-portraitists like Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), but she didn’t paint as well.

And though I like Velázquez, I don’t like Las Meninas (c. 1656), his study of a moment of life in the Spanish court, with the painter himself included. But Cumming has some interesting things to say about it, setting it into its historical, cultural and biographical context. And you’ll see Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (c. 1602) in a new way when you learn that the figure on the right holding up a lantern is Caravaggio himself:

He is on the very outskirts of the picture, struggling to see and make the gospel story visible, this artist evangelist. But his light also aids the soldiers he appears to accompany. Is he not in some sense their accomplice? (ch. 4, “Motive, Means and Opportunity”, pp. 65-6)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)


Careful thought goes into great art and it takes an intelligent critic to draw it out. Cumming does so with skill and subtlety and sets a good example for people with lazy eyes like me. I found myself looking ahead in the book, trying to understand the pictures better before I read what she had to say about them. I didn’t do it very well, but I’ve learnt the error of my ways. I just wish she would learn the error of her ways in terms of “in terms of” and other items of Guardianese, because it would make the text worthier of its subjects. And the text didn’t convert me to the greatness of Rembrandt and Goya. Their genius remains veiled: I just don’t like them. Not so for Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio. I thought they were geniuses before I read this book and I understand them better now that I have.
Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

But to understand them even better, we’ll have to use science and genetics. White European males have supplied a disproportionate share of greatness to art, just as they have to literature, science and mathematics. There’s something to explain there, though I’m sure that Cumming would be horrified at the suggestion of male and European superiority. She certainly doesn’t hint at it here, but her choices speak for themselves: Frida Kahlo is one of the rare exceptions to the white-male-European rule. And I don’t think she was a good artist, though she was a powerful one. Self-portraits have a special power and this book helps you understand it better.
Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck (1433)

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (1433)

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