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Picturing a World

Shaun Tan's Creatures

When I was a child, my mother had a rule that you couldn't buy a book unless you had first borrowed it from the library and knew you wanted to read and reread it. Well, as soon as I got wind of Shaun Tan's new book, Creatures, I borrowed it through interlibrary loan. The art work, of course, is terrific. I turned each page. At his comments in the final section, I started flipping back and forth. The more I got out of the pictures, the more I knew I wanted to study them again and again—and also to think more about what Tan has to say, not only about these pieces in particular, but about art and stories in general. Right. I bought a copy (from an local independent bookstore, natch).

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Valentine's meat juice

I suppose I could save this for next year's February 14th post, but, nah—it's too much fun to hold back! While transcribing a late 19th C letter from Virginia today, I came across a reference to "Valentine's meat juice." An internet search immediately turned up an Atlas Obscura article on the very thing—turns out to be a tonic made of juices extracted from meat cooked at a low temperature to retain the structure of proteins. Isn't that an excellent detail for historical fiction? Or the little brown, pear-shaped bottles could lend themselves to stories about junk dealers or children inventing magic potions to go in one they'd found. Any other ideas?

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Wilding Frieze

Exhibition alert: I couldn't help thinking of Dimples for President and The Flapper Queens when I saw Frieze in the review article The big picture: jazz age attitude captured by Dorothy Wilding. Wild, Wilding, wilder, and fun!

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Greene/Hills

In The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club (p. 481), Christopher de Hamel reports that Belle da Costa Greene " had a miniature portrait of herself painted in 1910 wrapped in apricot silk like an odalisque of the Middle East, explaining it to [Bernard] Berenson as showing 'the Belle of one of my former incarnations — Egyptienne.'" The artist, Laura Coombs Hills, was an exact contemporary of the real Jeanette Smith, which was enough to interest me in her. For her part, Greene was the great librarian of medieval manuscripts for J. Pierpont Morgan, an endlessly fascinating woman. And then I saw the portrait in its frame! Oh, that frame!

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Little, Big arrives!

My copy of Little, Big (to which I subscribed in 2008!) arrived last week; and, oh, yes, it was worth the wait. The interplay of John Crowley's text and Peter Milton's art is just what they hoped: the illustrations are independent of the text and yet they illuminate. In fact, earlier this week, I woke up and saw out my window a Peter Milton landscape. My bedroom window looks up a field to a row of white pine trees. In the gray light of early morning, light snow had fallen and the scene might as well have been one of his etchings. When a book makes you see through its eyes, well, what could be better?

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Dress Diary of Mrs. Anne Sykes

For those of us who love textiles, fashion history, and a good treasure story, who can resist The Dress Diary of Mrs. Anne Sykes by Kate Strasdin? Isn't that swatch in the middle positively Klimt? For the story of how Strasdin discovered an album of textile swatches by chance at a market stall, click here.
 

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Catching hearts

What can I possibly say except, Happy Valentine's Day!

 Image (BL ms Stowe 955, f. 13) via the British Library.

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Maria Prymachenko

Almost a year ago, on February 28, 2022, Russian forces destroyed the local history museum in the city of Ivankiv northwest of Kyiv. It was a house museum and held many works by Ukrainian folk artist, Maria Prymachenko. Neighbors and staff managed to save at least fourteen of her paintings. By September 2022, an Exhibition of Rescued Paintings by Maria Prymachenko was held in Kyiv. You can read more about her in Flowers for Peace: The Spirited Art of Ukrainian Artist Maria Prymachenko That is Now Becoming a Symbol of Hope. For the darker undertow in her work, see Cannibalism and genocide: the horrific visions of Ukraine's best loved artist. If only flowers, birds, and the sun were army enough!

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Lady Lilith

There are so many ways you can approach this watercolor of Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (which appears in a recent BBC article, Femme fatale: The images that reveal male fears). Start with whether it fits in the long history of the mythological figure, Lilith, Adam's first wife. Examine the symbolism of flowers, comb, candles, red bracelet, etc. Ask how it compares to Rossetti's own oil version of the picture. Expand the art-history approach to examine whether it belongs with other 19th C depictions of women at their toilette, such as Lucy-Lee Robbins' Putting Up Her Hair, Mary Cassatt's Denise at Her Dressing Table, or Edgar Degas' Woman at Her Toilette.
 
Or, as a writer, consider it as the springboard for a story.

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Zadie Smith on how to read history

Essay alert: At the beginning of Black History Month in America, I strongly recommend Zadie Smith's review of an updated reissue of Black England by Gretchen Gerzina. I admit I haven't read the book; but the review by itself, with its probe of complexities, is so thoughtful that it can stand alone.

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