Posts Tagged aesthetics

Arthur Boyd Houghton’s City of Strangers

25 February 2012

Arthur Boyd Houghton Itinerant Singers

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Itinerant Singers, c1860 (detail). Click to Open Full Image in New Window.

Arthur Boyd Houghton was known to paint glowing images of happy families on seaside retreat and beneficent old men at play with their grandchildren, but in 1859-1865 he also produced a series of weirdly unsettling London street scenes. Their composition is chaotic and fragmentary, depicting complex scenes of urban bustle. His figures, though densely intermingled, appear eerily disconnected from one another.

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The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork

4 February 2012

Mrs. Hamlin's Family History Wreath

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity. 

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties. As a good 19th century woman, the domestic harmony she fostered was an expression of herself; her self-portrait in sacrifice. 

As Helen Sheumaker describes in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, hairwork in its myriad forms had not only established itself as longstanding tradition by the latter half of the 19th century, but had become an active fashion. Husbands went to work wearing watch fobs fashioned of their wives hair. Locks from the dearly departed were mounted into rings and brooches. Ladies filled their autograph books with snippets from their friends. At a time of rising commercialism, sentimental hairwork became a way both to signal one’s sincerity and, paradoxically, to stay in style. 

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The Woodcuts of Fritz Eichenberg

14 October 2011

The Master at Work

It is difficult to conceive of an artistic medium more naturally suited to the Victorian Gothic than the woodcut, or a graver whose style so powerfully evokes the sinister and tempestuous spirit of the genre so well as Fritz Eichenberg. Distinctive for their dramatic composition and stagecraft, wild, curvilinear textures and darkly-hewn, agonizing characters, Eichenberg’s illustrations are featured in the work of the Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and a laundry list of other classic writers distinguished for exploring themes of social injustice, spiritual conflict and emotional turmoil.

Born in Cologne in 1901, his Jewish descent and outspoken opposition to the rising Nazi movement obliged him to emigrate to America in 1933, where he went on to work with such publishers as the Limited Editions and Heritage Club. While German and British aircraft were dueling over the skies of London, he was illustrating what may be the definitive editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre: an elegant, two-volume set designed by Richard Ellis and issued by Random House in 1943.

In the novels of Emily and Charlotte, he found characters that seemed to “come straight out of Dostoevsky—with a British accent.” The authoresses own tragic stories, he moreover remarked, endowed the novels with “dramatic impact and shocking authenticity.” He took particular inspiration in the “somber,” “haunted” landscape of Brontë country, which Emily featured to greatest effect in Wuthering Heights, with its two lonely manor houses set upon her beloved moors. 

Wuthering Heights

 

 

 

 

In the introduction to Eichenberg’s retrospective, The Wood and the Graver, Alan Fern wrote:

It is given to only a few illustrators to create images that so exactly suit the text with which they are working that their pictures fuse with the author’s words. Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland is one of these rare cases. Eichenberg’s Wuthering Heights may possibly be another. Having seen his Heathcliff, I, at least, cannot imagine him any other way.

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La Loïe Fuller – The Serpentine Dance

20 August 2011

This 1896 Lumière Brothers film captures a performance of Loïe Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance.” No, there was no LSD in the 1890’s, but yes, there were colorized films. In the technique used above, each frame was individually hand-tinted using stencils and colored dyes. It was a laborious, manual process, and it was first employed to recreate Loïe Fuller’s stage magic; acclaimed for its early use of chromatic theatrical lights that illuminated the dancer’s flowing white silk.
On a visit to Notre Dame, Fuller became enthralled by the kaleidoscopic light that shone through the cathedral’s stained glass windows. She lost herself in a bedazzled reverie, catching the colors upon a white handkerchief that she waved through the air…and was promptly taken for crazy and escorted out of the building. For Fuller, color possessed a natural harmony that could be honed into new art form, in the same way that sound had been transformed sound into music. “Colour,” she wrote, “so pervades everything that the whole universe is busy producing it, everywhere and in everything…The day will come when man will know how to employ them so delightfully that it will be hard to conceive how he could have lived so long in the darkness in which he dwells to-day.” 
To this end, she developed new compounds and techniques for stage lighting for which she held numerous patents. She was a member of the French Astronomical Society, and a friend to Marie Curie, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and countless other French artists, scientists and intellectuals. Some of the most well-respected members of the French creative class featured her in their work, and through her performances she became a prominent figure in the Art Nouveau movement. 

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The Moonflowers Bloom at Night

6 August 2011

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton and Charles Robertson

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson

                       Moon-Flower

THE sun has burned his way across the sky,
And sunk in sultry splendor; now the earth
Lies spent and gray, wrapped in the grateful dusk;
Stars tremble into sight, and in the west
The curved moon glows faintly. ‘T is the hour!
See! Flower on flower the buds unfold, until
The air is filled with odors exquisite
And amorous sighs, and all the verdurous gloom
Is starred with silvery disks.
                            Oh, Flower of Dreams! —
Of lover’s dreams, where bliss and anguish meet;
Dreams of dead joys, and joys that ne’er have been;
Keenest of all, the joys that ne’er shall be!            

                                    —Julia Schayer 

 
The common name “moonflower” has been applied to a variety of fragrant, vespertine plants that ranged across Europe and North America during the Victorian period. One in particular is Datura inoxia, which evokes the name not only for its ethereal white, night-blooming flowers, but for the deadly madness it produces when ingested.

Like all members its genus, Datura inoxia is a potent deliriant that contains malignant alkaloids chemically similar to those of deadly nightshade. Its effects include acute psychosis, lasting visual and spatial distortion, itching and dryness, disruption of the urinary tract, amnesia, and, all too often, death. In spite of a history of shamanic use, it is notorious, even among psychedelic luminaries, for producing the sort of drug trip that leads to such questions as “How did I get here?” and “What chewed off my fingers?” With its toothed flower and thorny fruit, D. inoxia signals danger to those who would unlock its secrets. 

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“An Interval of Tranquility:” The Rural Cemetery Movement in the United States

4 June 2011

Mount Auburn Cemetery, c1840s

In 1780 Paris’s Cimitière des Innocents had become so overcrowded that decomposing corpses overflowed into the basements of nearby apartment buildings, poisoning residents with mephitic gas. In the early 1800’s, New Yorkers looked with horror upon Trinity churchyard, which had become so densely packed with bodies that its burial mounds rose several yards above street level; the “deadly miasmas” it produced were blamed for the yellow fever epidemics of 1819-1822. At the dawn of the Victorian era, cities were literally overflowing with their dead.

In Part One of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History, David Charles Sloane describes how chronic overcrowding in urban churchyards and vaults gave rise to the rural cemetery movement in the United States, and produced some of the most beautiful landscaped environments of the nineteenth century. Rural cemeteries were more than just a change of venue; they represented a radical transformation in how Americans memorialized their dead. An idyllic new alternative to the churned-over churchyards that had been affording city dwellers with little more than temporary storage, rural cemeteries were conceived of as veritable “gardens of graves;” permanent resting places that the general public would visit in a spirit of solemn contemplation.

Founded in 1831, Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first of its kind in the United States. Inspired by Paris’s Père Lachaise, which opened in 1804, it was designed to afford city dwellers with easy access to naturalistic landscapes, picturesque settings, and a space for tranquil reflection. “The cemetery,” writes Sloane,

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