Category Archives: Heady Brew

The Hand of Isaac Fawkes: Quicker than Hogarth’s Eye?

This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:1), July 2011

The Hand of Isaac Fawkes:
Quicker than Hogarth's Eye?

Isaac Fawkes is the earliest professional magician about whom we know anything substantial, and the sparse historical record is top-heavy with praise. He is “the famous” Mr. Fawkes, who “performs… most surprizing Tricks by Dexterity of Hand.” He undertakes “Curiosities no Person in the Kingdom can pretend to show like himself.” He has “had the Honour to perform before his present Majesty King George” and other high-falutin’ types, and has done so to “great Applause.”

Isaac Fawkes
Isaac Fawkes

For those who know the business, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the reviewer who authored most of this praise was… Isaac Fawkes. As the research of Ricky Jay, Edwin Dawes, and especially Richard H. Evans has shown, Fawkes was a relentless self-promoter who issued a flood of publicity. Newspapers were fresh and abundant in the early 18th century, and people high and low would gather in London’s countless coffee houses to read the daily news, bicker over the issues, and click the occasional AdSense link. What were these ads like? In a typical one, Fawkes trumpets his own success at the box office and defies other magicians to match his fiscal feat: “The famous Mr. Fawks, as he modestly stiles himself, has since Bartholomew and Southwark-Fairs, put seven hundred Pounds into the Bank” and he “may certainly challenge any Conjuror of the Age to do the like” (Paulson 80). Continue reading The Hand of Isaac Fawkes: Quicker than Hogarth’s Eye?

Bring Me The Red Pages

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of
This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

One of the cable channels is showing the whole run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in order, and so we're dipping in from time to time. I'm glad to report that it holds up quite well, as sitcoms go. At a certain juncture in tonight's episode, Murray ripped the breast pocket off Ted Baxter's jacket, and I turned to my wife and said, "Watch. Later he pulls off all three." Sho nuff, it came to pass as I had said.

Now, normally I wouldn't spoil in that way, but we had been discussing just how strange memory is, and this incident presented a good example. I haven't seen that episode since it first ran in 1972. It was not deeply meaningful to me then. There was no particular reason that this detail should have lodged itself in my cortex. But there it was. Something about the visual of Eventual Captain Stubing's sartorial assault was odd enough to stick with me involuntarily, for no particular reason, all these years… alongside who knows how much other pop-cultural clutter and high-minded ephemera.

Brains are strange. Minds are mysterious. Strangely hangs the Loop that wears the Moebius strip. But here's the lesson of the moment: not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but it's also an agent of Mnemosyne. And Mnemosyne likes codices. (And polkas, waltzes, and schottisches.)
Continue reading Bring Me The Red Pages

Between a Rock and a Void Place

Ryoanji garden. Photo by

In the northwest of Kyoto, in the Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Ryōan-ji), stands a garden where only the viewer grows. It is a rock garden— the greatest rock garden in the world. Since the late 1400s it has been tended daily by Zen monks in the service of those who go there to see what is or is not to be seen.

Ryoan-ji, Concentric circles
Ryoan-ji, concentric circles and lines,

The monks rake the rocks into straight lines where the large stones are absent, and they rake them into concentric circles where the large stones are present. The net effect is of an ocean's regular waves lapping gently against every shore in a tiny archipelago, except that nothing is moving.

A rock garden such as this is an example of the art of karesansui, which is often translated "dry landscape" but which etymoliterally means "dry mountain water"; the evocation of land and sea is explicit.

There are many ways to interpret this garden and its elements.

Continue reading Between a Rock and a Void Place

This Is My Body

The Roettgen Pietà
The Roettgen Pietà (Vesperbild), polychromed willow or poplar, 89cm, ca. 1360, Landesmuseum, Bonn


The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.

In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it's an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue's emotional import.

The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life's end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed.

The anonymous sculptor captures these antinomies in visual and tactile form. Mary is straight and rectangular: her knees and hips bend at ninety degrees so that her lower legs and torso form a visual rectangle that establishes the basic order of the artwork. In contrast to her rigid, vertical, rectilinear form, the body of Jesus spreads in a zig-zagging diagonal from upper left to lower right. He bends at the ankles, the knees, and the hips, while his arms extend limply, one dangling straight down and the other resting on his mother's forearm. His enormous, heavy head falls back, bending his neck at an impossible angle and casting the thorns of his crown in sharp profile against the negative space. In macabre harmony, Mary's oversized head tilts slightly off center, toward his, as she stares blankly at the space before them and contemplates the horror of the moment.

The weight and angle of his head, his gaping mouth, his dangling arm, and his broken pose emphasize that Jesus is dead. Amplifying this point, the artist presents the wounds in his feet, hands, and side as plump blossoms of gushing blood held constant. Red paint describes the course of blood that once dripped down his arms, and rivulets of red make a maze of his forehead where thorns have harmed him. His near nudity and the gore of his wounds stand in contrast to the splendor of his mother's blue garment, once partly gilt. Continue reading This Is My Body

I’ll have a half double-decaffeinated half-caff with a twist of lemon

Connoisseurship is at a crossroads, and H. Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem explores that intersection in his review of James Beck's From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis.  Beck, no stranger to controversy, sets an agenda for reform by calling into question the means by which a couple of well publicized pre-sale attributions were developed.

Complaints of contrivance on the part of consulting connoisseurs or of credulity on the part of their patrons are nothing new (*cough* Berenson *cough*), but Beck's goal isn't an exposé, nor even a dressing down.  Rather, he's prescriptive.  He offers up a set of guidelines and practices aimed at greater rigor and consistency in the practice of attribution.  Of course, even that lacks novelty, as the kerfuffle over the Rembrandt Research Project's connoisseurship-by-committee shows.  Perhaps it doesn't matter whether you count the threads in a canvas if, in the end, the politics and dynamics of an evolving committee overdetermine the final call, which comes down to a simple vote.  And maybe it makes no difference whether a painting is promoted (or demoted!) on a vote of four to three, if the angle and viscosity of the paint preclude that outcome.  (For another treatment of this question, see David Packwood's thoughtful discussion.)

What's fresh and intriguing in both Beck's book and Niyazi's review is the measure in which each of them feels constrained by the call of two powerful but often contrary empirical methodologies, intuitive assessment and evidential rigor.  Beck feels, much more strongly than Niyazi, the allure of old-school, authoritative declarations of authenticity.  But then, Beck was steeped in a formation where the cultivation of judgment was paramount; Niyazi is a scientist by training.  Appreciating the fact that Beck overcomes the temptation of the shamanistic approach and endorses the need for repeatable, objective measures is the impetus of Niyazi's review.

By way of illustrating the problem, Niyazi links to a delightful video excerpt in which the impish Thomas Hoving sizes up an alleged Pollock.  Niyazi's tone toward Hoving, like Hoving's toward the painting, is somewhat skeptical, but I think there's room for nuance here.  Hoving's playfulness and his experience in sizing up fakes must be taken into account.  With his mugging and squinting and posing, Hoving's clearly offering not just a stunt of connoisseurship, but also a parody of stunts of connoisseurship (such as the one he undertook when deciding whether to buy the Juan de Pareja, an episode hilariously described starting around page 249 of Hoving's autobiography Making the Mummies Dance.).  Hoving's pronouncement about the Pollock-candidate comes with authority of a sort, but also with a wink and a nod.  I'm reminded of art lover Steve Martin's amusing riff in L. A. Story:

That's not to say that Hoving is insincere in his decision or incapable in his application of the method, but merely to say that he understands the nature and limits, as well as the positive potential, of expertising.  So I think the excerpt, while illustrative, is somewhat less damning than Niyazi suggests.

In any event, Niyazi's review ("Read the whole thing!") raises again with intelligent vigor an issue that will only become more pressing as empirical techniques and digital technology continue to mature: to what extent should science and deductive logic trump authority and intuition?

Prehistoric painting

My earliest childhood ambition (at least in response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?") was to become a paleontologist.  This fascination with prehistory arose in part, as it must with many children, in response to some well chosen dinosaur toys.  I learned to say and spell the names of the various species and staged mighty, improbable battles on plateaus made of sofa cushions.   At some point, a field trip to the La Brea tar pits catalyzed my interest and I began to read whatever I could find not only about Mesozoic megacritters but also about the Pleistocene scene.  I was particularly interested in the edge cases — misapprehensions such as "brontosaurus" and mysteries such as the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon nexus.

Eventually, this obsession gave way to another (and then another, and then…).  I never returned to it in a serious or specializing way, but I continue to feel the allure of prehistoric artifacts and the poorly understood cultures that produced them.  Interpreting art historical objects unaccompanied by textual or verbal cues — interpreting them only in relation to site-specific material factors and explicitly speculative cultural models — has a way of infusing complex questions of methodology with simplicity, clarity, and humility.

I recently received a copy of the latest (8th) edition of Janson's History of Art and since I happened to have an earlier edition (4th) on hand, I took interest in what had changed in just shy of twenty years.  The quantity of color photographs, like the price, has increased dramatically.  The production values are better.  The earlier text was Anthony Janson's adaptation of his father's famous work.  In the preface, the son embraces Horst Janson's traditional historiography and (with a profession of sympathy if not regret) fends off the encroaching "new art history".  In contrast, the new volume has been revised or rewritten by a committee of six specialists; after a score of years the vitality and value of the (by-now-not-so-) new art history is a settled matter. Continue reading Prehistoric painting


persimmon03 In the first post in this series, I discussed ways in which the space around a single figural sculpture becomes a tacit part of the artwork by virtue of the moving viewer's interpretive act. In the second post, I considered how the spatial relationships among multiple figures in a more complex figural sculpture can provide interpretive clues and cues that lead to a rich understanding not only of the fiction's virtual space, but also of its mental, social, and emotional spaces.

Now I would like to consider immersion, which I will treat as a set of visual, spatial, and kinetic opportunities afforded the viewer of an artwork by virtue of its scale, situation, and referential complexity. I will offer two examples, one which invites the interpreter to go around and upon and another which invites the interpreter to go within and beneath.
Continue reading Immersion


In the previous post in this series, I considered how the pose and three-dimensionality of a figural sculpture support its interpretation. I noted that representational sculptures reside at the intersection of what is actual and what is virtual. Because it is there and we can regard it in many ways, a statue shows us part of a projected fictional world and implies or suggests even more, unrealized in the sculpture, about that world. The artist leaves its underdetermined fictional details to the viewer's imagination.

I described how different vantages on Michelangelo's David yield somewhat different understandings of the figure, and I explained how Bernini later carried vantage-based variations to an energetic extreme in his own David. From these observations and others, I drew a conclusion: although we typically think of movies in relation to photography and painting, film (like its cousin, theater) is more akin to sculpture.

Asserting a close kinship among sculpture, theater, and film raises issues of technology, so I would like to recommend a way of thinking about technology and to illustrate how it can inform the interpretation of art. Continue reading Technology