Thought-Pourri: Possessive Edition

For those of you in the DC area, don’t forget that tonight from 6:00-8:00 pm the Catholic Information Center, located at 1501 K Street NW, will be hosting its annual Christmas Poetry Party, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society of America. I will be one of the presenters, and if that doesn’t entirely put you off, drop by and say hello! There will be refreshments and plenty of good cheer on offer, and the event is absolutely free.

Meanwhile, this morning I’m currently participating as an absentee bidder in a live auction taking place elsewhere, for a painting that I’m very interested in adding to my collection, so fingers x’ed…

And with that, it’s time for some headlines:

The King’s Pictures

After Charles I was overthrown and executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, much of the substantial art collection which he and his ancestors had accumulated was sold off and scattered to the winds. When his son Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration in 1660, the Stuarts had a great deal of work to do to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Through a variety of means, the new king managed to start over, acquiring a number of works of art which are featured in an exhibition this month at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Among the items featured in “Charles II: Art & Power” is one of Lorenzo Lotto’s (1480-1557) best paintings, his portrait of the Venetian art dealer Andrea Odoni sitting in his shop, surrounded by statues and casts of classical sculpture. I particularly like how the dramatically foreshortened right arm and hand are shown holding out a small classical sculpture, as if Odoni is offering it to us for sale, and the mixture of charcoal and dove grays, mossy green, and caramel browns create a surprisingly rich color palette.


Vienna’s Virtu

The shortlived Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”), from the beginning of the previous century, had a major impact on Modern art, architecture, and design, thanks in part to its espousal of innovative design methods, which it disseminated globally through the creation of satellite workshops in Germany, Switzerland, and New York. Now a major new exhibition in the latter city, at the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art, is bringing together a wide range of objects created by the Austrian artistic collective, from furniture and ceramics to jewels and decorative objects. Among the beautiful items displayed in the “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” show is this astonishing jewelry box, which in the art trade is known as an “objet de vertu” or “vertu” for short. These were items that often had no practical purpose, or were so luxurious as to be somewhat impractical, but which nevertheless featured an incredibly detailed and painstaking level of craftsmanship.


Hoving’s Hordes

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when art museums were fairly hushed, quiet spaces, where there were rarely large crowds of people. That all changed forever, at least at the world’s larger museums, with the blockbuster 1978 exhibition, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a fascinating piece from this month’s Vulture/New York Magazine, Boris Kachka explains how one man, former Met director Thomas Hoving, took a gamble on making an art exhibition a must-see event for Americans – like the Super Bowl or the final episode of “Cheers” – and succeeded so far beyond expectations that eventually everyone else in the museum world followed suit. A healthy debate could be had over whether Hoving’s hordes of exhibition visitors have improved or ruined the experience of visiting an exhibition, or indeed a cultural institution focused primarily on visitor numbers.


Degas’ Development

Those of my readers who happen to be in the Denver area between February and May of next year will want to check out the newly-announced exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection”, which will be held at the Denver Art Museum. Covering over fifty years of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the show will feature over 100 examples of Degas’ varied output and artistic development, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures, alongside the work of some of his contemporaries and friends. Of particular interest is this rather early picture by Degas, painted in around 1865 and now in the collection of the Orsay in Paris, which shows a group of men on horseback shooting at and trampling over a group of nude women, while a city burns in the background. It’s such a strange picture, and so not what springs to mind when one things of the work of Degas, that I don’t quite know what to make of it – but it’s definitely piqued my interest.



Wonderful Things

If you have not had a chance to drop by Google yet today, make sure you do so to check out their beautiful “doodle” logo honoring the birthday of American archaeologist Howard Carter – arguably the most famous archaeologist of them all – who discovered the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. As someone who has been fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians for decades, I was really pleased to see it. Yet the occasion also gives me a chance to encourage you as an individual, as well as those of you who are parents providing examples to your children, to make time for the study of science, regardless of what your chosen profession may be.

I suspect that many of my childhood dreams about what I would be when I grew up were no different from those of most American boys who grew up over the past several decades. Sometimes I wanted to be a superhero, or a policeman, or a knight. I liked to imagine that I could do what I read about in comic books or saw on television and in the movies: saving damsels in distress, fighting bad guys and monsters, and having all sorts of exciting adventures. Other fantasies were perhaps a bit more specialist, such as being fascinated by elves and wizards in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was difficult to “play” with my younger siblings who had not read the books, as I made them tramp along with me and my friend as we acted out the shall we say “taller” roles, and they played humble hobbits.

Perhaps somewhat unusual as compared to some of my peers was a very early fascination with the sciences, from astronomy to entomology, paleontology, geology, and so on. I virtually inhaled books about subjects such as prehistoric animals, geological formations and epochs, and theories about planetary formation and space travel. Yet of all the sciences the one that probably attracted me the most, and in a way ultimately led me to the intellectual interests I continue to pursue in my spare time today, was that of archaeology, and specifically Egyptology, i.e., the study of Ancient Egypt.

One of the things which my parents did very well with all of us, if my siblings will not think it too presumptuous of me to speak on their behalf, was that in general, if they approved of an interest that we had, they would do their best to provide us with materials or opportunities to explore it. So if someone wanted to learn how to ice skate, for example, they would obtain skates and take them to skating lessons; a child who was interested in numismatics would be given coins, and books about them, and taken to coin fairs. Not every whim was indulged, but on the whole they did their best to try to encourage us to have as broad a set of interests as we were willing to explore.

In my case, I was very happily provided with many books about Ancient Egypt. Though because I was a rather precocious reader – having learned to read at the age of 2 – this often took the form of lavishly illustrated catalogues from museum exhibitions, or scholarly works with few pictures but plenty of footnotes. I taught myself about such things as how to read and write some of the simpler hieroglyphics; the chronological order of the major kings and dynasties; and about the development of different construction methods, theological beliefs, burial practices, and so on.

Tied into this study, and indeed a very essential component of it, was an understanding of how styles and ideas both changed and yet remained constant in Ancient Egypt over time. A sphinx for example, is a beast found at the time of the earliest pharaohs, but is also found well into the Greco-Roman period many centuries later, when Egypt lost its empire and became a colonial province. Some gods became more or less popular over time, and art, object design, and architecture changed to reflect the shift in popularity from one to another. The subtle, naturalistic beauty of the brief Amarna period under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun can be easily contrasted with the pumped-up, masculine style preferred by Ramses the Great.

Of everything that I studied, nothing was as exciting as the work of Howard Carter, which was partially due to the fact that he found a nearly-intact tomb, with a host of artefacts to study that provided an enormous wealth of information on all aspects of Ancient Egyptian life. This included not only theological and political subject matter, but also practical things, such as the kinds of foods they ate, and the clothing, footwear, and personal adornment they wore. Carter’s discoveries also told us about the way the Ancient Egyptians looked at each other, within their own families.

For example, you may not be aware of the fact that buried alongside Tutankhamun in his tomb were the mummified bodies of two unborn baby girls: one who died at about 5-7 months of pregnancy, and the other at approximately 7-9 months. One of these little bodies had enough remaining genetic material for later scientists to be able to prove conclusively Carter’s theory that at least the one girl, and probably the other as well, was the daughter of Tutankhamun. Although she and her sister had been stillborn, both were honored with a royal burial alongside their father including mummification and traditional funeral masks, just like any other Egyptian princess. Next time a Planned Parenthood supporter gets in your face about a “fetus,” hit them with the historical fact that even the Ancient Egyptians did not believe a fetus was simply a blob of tissue, but rather a human being with an immortal soul.

In any case, while in the end I never became an Egyptologist or archeologist like Howard Carter, I remain fascinated by these areas of study to this day, as I do many other areas of the sciences. I do not engage in any sort of scientific practice for a living, and yet if I spot an interesting article about discoveries of new planets or hitherto unknown species of sea creatures, I am once again filled with a childlike curiosity and sense of wonder about the universe. Listening to Ian Maxfield’s podcasts over on The Catholic Laboratory, about how faith and science have often worked together, whatever anti-Catholic voices may have told you to the contrary, is not only enlightening but also wonderfully entertaining. Even if like me, your profession is not in the sciences, they are a rich area for exploration and mental stimulation: however you may have done in science at school, to have a diversity of interests and a desire to learn more about the world in which one happens to live should be a joy, not a burden.

When Howard Carter first opened a hole in the sealed doorway leading into the tomb of Tutankhamun, he was asked by Lord Carnarvon, the expedition’s chief financial backer, whether he could see anything; Carter famously whispered, “Yes! Wonderful things.” I would encourage those of you who are parents to foster this same kind of curiosity and wonder in your children, as my parents did with me. Even if they do not grow up to be chemists, physicists, or biologists, you will kelp them to lead richer, fuller lives by picking up on their budding scientific interests, and perhaps even learn something yourself in the process. A lifetime of learning is not enough to absorb all of the wonderful things there are to be explored in the world.

Archaeologist Howard Carter and friend in The Valley of the Kings (1922)