Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Civil War Roots of Santa Claus

Let others debate whether Santa Claus is white or not. There’s no debate that the definitive American Santa is political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Merry Old Santa Claus (detail shown above) from the New Year’s Day 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. If it looks a lot like the picture in your head from Clement Clarke Moore’s "The Night Before Christmas," you’re right—Nast borrowed heavily from 1823 poem and its “cheeks… like roses,” “nose like a cherry,” etc. But that wasn’t Nast’s first crack at depicting Old Saint Nick. Nast actually first drew Santa for the American public in 1863, during the midst of the American Civil War. In these sesquicentennial years of the War Between the States, it’s important to also remember the smaller sesquicentennials, such as this anniversary of the beginning of what we now “know” Santa to look like. Black or white, fat or thin—Santa and his Civil War roots say as much about the circumstances of his origins as about what he and the holiday mean today. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "The Civil War Roots of Santa Claus."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vivian Maier and the Hidden History of Women's Photography

Vivian Maier took about 150,000 pictures during her lifetime, but never showed a single one to another living soul. When she died in April 2009, Vivian was remembered as a beloved nanny by the then-grown children who rescued her from homelessness and took care of her in her later years. Maier’s collection of negatives (most of which were never printed) was already being scattered to the winds after she failed to pay rent on her storage unit two years earlier. Thanks to filmmaker and street photographer John Maloof, who bought some of the negatives while researching another project, Vivian Maier’s photographs have been seen for the first time by the public and recognized as some of the finest street images taken by an American photographer, male or female, of the 20th century. In Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, Maloof continues the rediscovery of Maier’s work, but this time focusing on her unique, enigmatic self-portraits. Vivian Maier’s story is more than just the story of a single, almost-lost photographer, but also the story of the hidden history of women’sphotography and women’s art itself. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Vivian Maier and the Hidden History of Women's Photography."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Silent Film Stills Still Fascinate Us

Fewer than 14% of American silent films still exist today in complete form according to “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” a recent Library of Congress report by film historian David Pierce. All we know today of the vast majority of those lost films are either tantalizing fragments of footage or the still photographs taken to advertise and promote the movies and their stars. Looking at those still photographs now reminds us of whole worlds and personalities lost to time. David S. ShieldsStill: American Silent Motion Picture Photography masterfully recreates and celebrates a genre of photography originally intended as a marketing tool but today recognized for its own artistry, separate from but still related to the films and actors it saves from the dustbin of history. “Photography preserved what was most vivid and splendid about silent cinema, the unprecedented visual elaboration of places and people—the beauty, the horror, the moodiness,” Shields writes in rebuttal to modern viewers bored by the perceived limitations of the silent films. Silent film stills, Shields believes, “speak with a force little diminished by ninety years of history.” Shields, likewise, speaks with a force powered not just by his passion for and knowledge of the field, but also by sharing the stage with the work itself in his beautifully illustrated book. By its end, Still reminds us why silent film stills still fascinate us. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Why Silent Film Stills Still Fascinate Us."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Are Tech Giants' Offices the Cathedrals of the Future?

On October 15, 2013, the City Council of Cupertino, California, debated for 6 hours before finally approving Apple’s plans for a new $5 billion USD office headquarters to be built in their city. Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs approved architect Norman Foster’s design (shown above) just weeks before his death in 2011. Work on the mammoth “mother ship” begins next year and is scheduled to be finished sometime in 2016. For a company that likes to “think different,” this architectural thinking looks more like old
school thinking to me, specifically the kind of “bigger is better” mentality that spawned the building of massive cathedrals throughout Europe for centuries. Whereas the old churches rose in worship of the old gods, these new churches rise up in worship of the new tech corporate gods. Are the tech giants’ offices the cathedrals of the future? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Are Tech Giants' Offices the Cathedrals of the Future?"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is the U.S.'s Vermeer Invasion Too Much of a Good Thing?

The last foreign military invasion of the United States (which included the burning of the White House) took place two centuries ago. Half a century ago, a different kind of British Invasion brought us the Beatles and the Stones. This year, America faces yet another foreign invasion on a small scale physically, but on a mammoth scale culturally. Through a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the art world stars, 14 of the 36 paintings currently acknowledged to be painted by Johannes Vermeer, including the novel- and movie-inspiring Girl With Pearl Earring (detail shown above), are all within the reach of a train ride between a handful of East Coast museums. For American art lovers on a budget, the idea of Vermeers coming to them rather than the alternative might be an opportunity too good to miss. For international Vermeer followers, the bunching of masterpieces makes an American vacation heaven and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor the train to paradise. For American museums looking to boost attendance numbers and revenue, the Vermeer invasion might be the cure for what ills them. But is the Vermeer invasion too much of a good thing? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Is the U.S.'s Vermeer Invasion Too Much of a Good Thing?"

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Has Norman Rockwell Been Outed?

Any biographer writing about a familiar subject faces the same towering problem—how do I make this person seem new and modern? When writing about an artist such as Norman Rockwell, whose art acts for many as a visual time capsule of early and mid-20th century Americana, that issue becomes doubly difficult to surmount.  In American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, author Deborah Solomon re-evaluates not just Rockwell’s work, which has been unjustly dismissed as kitsch for too long, but also Rockwell himself and the motivations hidden in his art. Among those hidden clues to the man she finds in Rockwell’s paintings, Solomon unearths homoeroticism and a fascination with preadolescent boys that puts the artist in a wholly different light. Although Solomon never slaps the label of homosexual or pedophile on Norman Rockwell, she comes awfully darn close. Those innuendos have infuriated Rockwell’s descendants and raised larger questions about the dangers of modern biography. Has Norman Rockwell been outed? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "Has Norman Rockwell Been Outed?"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Art Spiegelman Is More Than Just Maus

Sometimes the toughest shadow to escape is one you cast over yourself. When artist Art Spiegelman began publishing Maus in 1980 in chapter form in the indie comics magazine Raw, which he co-founded with his wife Françoise Mouly, he couldn’t have guessed that his artistic journey into his family’s past and the Holocaust would lead to a PulitzerPrize in 1992. Spiegelman’s career stretched back to the 1960s (and Maus itself began in 1972 with a 3-page comic), but he never experienced the recognition that Maus could bring. In The Jewish Museum, New York’s new exhibition Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective, which runs through March 23, 2014, we see not only what led up to Maus, but also what’s led from it. Co-Mix is as much the story of the man who made Maus as the story of how a comic innovator and visionary escaped the snares of fame and made it out more creatively alive than ever. Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "How Art Spiegelman Is More Than Just Maus."