Category Archives: art

Honor thy Father, Michelangelo

http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/deja_vu/2013/07/family-matters.php

 

1521: Even after sculpting David and painting the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling, Michelangelo was still a slave to filial piety. In this letter, excerpted in our Family issue, the artist implores his father to recognize the ways in which he has been an exemplary son and caretaker:

I’m certain that never, from the day I was born till now, have I thought of doing anything, great or small, to harm you; and always all the toils I’ve endured, I’ve endured them for your sake. And since I came back to Florence from Rome, I’ve always looked after you, and you know I confirmed that all I have is yours; and indeed it’s only a few days ago, when you were ill, that I told you and promised that I would do my best never to fail you as long as I live, and this I confirm. Now I’m amazed that you’ve forgotten everything so soon. Yet you’ve tried me out these thirty years, you and your sons, and you know I’ve always thought about you and helped you whenever I could. How can you go around saying that I turned you out? Don’t you see what a reputation you’re giving me when they can say I turned you out? That’s all I needed, on top of my worries about other things, and all for your sake! A nice way you have of thanking me!

 

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Anton Chekhov Writes to His Brother

Every hour is precious

 
 

In March of 1886, at the age of 26, acclaimed Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov wrote this fascinating and honest letter of advice to his troubled older brother, Nikolai, a talented painter and writer who, despite being just 28 himself, had for many years been plagued by alcoholism to the point where he often slept on the streets, his days a blur; his notable skills as an artist largely untapped. This letter and the list it contained—eight qualities exhibited by “civilized” people—were essentially Anton’s attempt at knocking some sense into the brother he was slowly losing.

Sadly, his efforts were ultimately futile. Nikolai passed away three years later.

(Source: James Vane; Translation by Michael Henry Heim; Image: Anton Chekhov, via.)

Moscow, March, 1886

My little Zabelin,

I’ve been told that you have taken offense at gibes Schechtel and I have been making. The faculty of taking offense is the property of noble souls alone, but even so, if it is all right to laugh at Ivanenko, me, Mishka and Nelly, then why is it wrong to laugh at you? It’s unfair. However, if you’re not joking and really do feel you’ve been offended, I hasten to apologize. 

People only laugh at what’s funny or what they don’t understand. Take your choice. 

The latter of course is more flattering, but—alas!—to me, for one, you’re no riddle. It’s not hard to understand someone with whom you’ve shared the delights of Tatar caps, Voutsina, Latin and, finally, life in Moscow. And besides, your life is psychologically so uncomplicated that even a nonseminarian could understand it. Out of respect for you let me be frank. You’re angry, offended…but it’s not because of my gibes or of that good-natured chatterbox Dolgov. The fact of the matter is that you’re a decent person and you realize that you’re living a lie. And, whenever a person feels guilty, he always looks outside himself for vindication: the drunk blames his troubles, Putyata blames the censors, the man who bolts from Yakimanka Street with lecherous intent blames the cold in the living room or gibes, and so on. If I were to abandon the family to the whims of fate, I would try to find myself an excuse in Mother’s character or my blood spitting or the like. It’s only natural and pardonable. It’s human nature, after all. And you’re quite right to feel you’re living a lie. If you didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have called you a decent person. When decency goes, well, that’s another story. You become reconciled to the lie and stop feeling it. 

You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?

You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault. 

As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them. In my opinion you are kind to the point of fault, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting. You are gifted from above with something others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. It places you in a very special position: you could be a toad or a tarantula and you would still be respected, because talent is its own excuse. 

You have only one failing, the cause of the lie you’ve been living, your troubles, and your intestinal catarrh. It’s your extreme lack of culture. Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae. The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among intellectuals, to fit in and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of breeding. Your talent has brought you into their midst. You belong there, but…you seem to yearn escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and your next-door neighbors. It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard. 

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes. 

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed. 

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts. 

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not. 

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date. 

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one. 

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious. 

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later. 

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious. 

Trips back and forth to Yakimanka Street won’t help. You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him. 

You must swallow your pride. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!

I’m waiting…We’re all waiting…

Yours,
A. Chekhov

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The aesthetic Einstein

Einstein wasn’t just a theoretical physicist. Read about Einstein and the world of his day here

einstein violin

 

Peter Forbes: rereading Einstein’s collected papers

For a supposed ivory-tower scientist, Albert Einstein had an impressive record of social and political engagement. And as the latest volume of his collected papers shows, he also had a way with fridges

Albert Einstein, his secretary and his daughter take the oath of US citizenship
Hands up … Albert Einstein, his secretary Helen Dukas (left) and his daughter Margaret take the oath of US citizenship Photograph: American Stock/Getty Images

Japan and gyroscopes, refrigerators and impressionistic travel writing – these are not topics one would associate with Albert Einstein. Nor does the following sound like the master of time and space: “The prospect of a downright normal, natural life in tranquillity, connected with the welcome practical employment in the factory, enchants me. Add to that the wonderful countryside, sailing – enviable.” This was a response to the offer by Einstein’s friend, the inventor and businessman Hermann Anschütz-Kaempfe, of work and a home in Kiel, away from pressures that plagued him in Berlin after the first world war.

The joy of the Collected Papers, which has now reached the 13th volume and the year 1922, is that it reveals these lesser known facets of this extraordinary man, allowing us to go beyond the famous mask. “Mild, intoxicating air. Steel-colored sea. Italian suggestion of solid ground diffusely cloudy. Japanese woman crawling about with children. They look rosy and bedazzled, almost as if (schematic) stylised. Black-eyed, black-haired, large-headed, pattering.” This is from the lengthy travel diary of 1922/3, and presents an unfamiliar figure, to say the least: an Einstein who sounds more like a painter taking notes for a composition.

As Kevin Jackson has pointed out in Constellation of Genius, 1922 was Modernism Year One; both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published that year. Scientific and artistic modernism were more or less contemporaneous, although on the Jackson principle, Modernist Science Year One would have to be 1905, Einstein’s annus mirabilis when, in the space of three and a half months, he wrote three epochal papers, one of which won him the Nobel prize, one confirmed beyond all doubt the existence and size of atoms, and the other introduced the mind, space and time-bending concept of special relativity.

The label Modernism Year One sits uneasily on Germany in 1922, where the reaction against all things modern, Jewish and left-wing was beginning to congeal into the horror that would emerge as Nazism. Einstein, the man who, just as much as Picasso or Stravinsky, ushered in modernism, knew this only too well.

The German republic, formed after Germany’s defeat and the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918, faced enormous economic and political problems, as the war’s victors sought unfeasibly large reparations. Hitler had already been installed as leader of the Nazi party in Munich in the summer of 1921. On 24 June 1922, in a portent of what was to come, the foreign minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing extremists. Rathenau was Jewish and had just signed the Rapallo treaty with communist Russia. Einstein was friendly with Rathenau and was deeply affected by the killing. As a lifelong pacifist and self-proclaimed “international person”, he had been horrified at the extreme nationalistic mania engendered by the war even among scientific colleagues.

In October 1914, 93 leading German intellectuals, including some of Einstein’s closest colleagues such as Max Planck, signed a declaration, “Call to the Civilised World”, popularly known as the “Manifesto of the 93”, which denied all allegations of German atrocities in the invasion of Belgium in 1914. Einstein was involved in a counter manifesto, approaching various Prussian Academy luminaries for support, and was completely unsuccessful, lamenting: “Only men of extraordinary independence of character seem able to resist the pressure of prevailing opinion. There does not seem one single man of that calibre in the Academy.”

After the experimental vindication of Relativity in 1919, science itself had become a battleground, with some German physicists, led by Philipp Lenard, rejecting Relativity in favour of “sound German spirit”. In 1921 Lenard had written a book, Ether and Unether, expressing these views, and Hitler had written an article stating: “Science, once our greatest pride, is today being taught by Hebrews, for whom … science is only a means towards a deliberate, systematic poisoning of our nation’s soul.” Lenard was to become Hitler’s “Chief of Aryan Science”.

For a supposed ivory-tower scientist, Einstein had an impressive record of social and political engagement. Later, in 1933, soon after arriving in America as an exile from Nazism, he instigated the foundation of theInternational Rescue Committee, still flourishing and soon to be headed by David Miliband. He also worked hard to help establish the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1921 he toured America with Chaim Weizmann (later to be Israel’s first president), drumming up support for such Zionist causes. But he had reservations, writing to his great friend the Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest: “The Zionists are shameless and importunate; I have a hard time adopting the appropriate position in each instance, considering that I am, of course, well-disposed to the cause.” Einstein could not escape being regarded as a figurehead for world Jewry, but he did reject the post of President of Israel when it was offered in 1952.

In 1922, Einstein’s peace activism took the form of joining the League of Nations committee on intellectual cooperation, but he knew he did not possess the negotiation skills essential to political life, and all his attempts at such intervention led to frustration. He resigned from the committee in July, only to rejoin and then leave for good in March 1923. Of this first resignation he wrote to Marie Curie: “I perceived that very strong anti-Semitism prevails among those I to some extent have to represent at the League of Nations; and generally there is a mentality that makes me unsuited to be the representing and intermediary person.”

When he was warned, following Rathenau’s murder, that his own life might be in danger, he decided that, whatever his long-term plans, he would spend some time away from Germany. From October 1922 to March 1923 he toured, principally in Japan at the invitation of his Japanese publisher. Japan might seem an unlikely home-from-home for a German Jew, but Einstein was entranced by the delicacy of Japanese art and architecture, the grace of the people, the social cohesion.

He believed in a culture of aesthetic and moral harmony that clearly did not exist in Germany. He found Japanese music somewhat wanting, because the element of harmony that coursed through and gave impetus to western music was missing, but the people, the architecture and the social climate he found enchanting, declaring: “For the first time I have seen a healthy human society whose members are absorbed in it.” All of this would, within a decade, curdle, and a brutalised Japan would become an ally of Nazi Germany. But this does not invalidate Einstein’s verdict on the culture he observed.

The journey also took in brief visits to Barcelona, Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, ending in Palestine. He found the voyage, during which he was free of the many pressures of Germany, stimulating for his science, and the procession of scenes from so many un-Germanic places brought out the aesthete in him. So absorbing was the experience that the award of the Nobel prize, the ceremony for which he missed because of the trip, went unmentioned in his diary.

Einstein was a man of broad culture: music was always vital to him, and even in the hurly-burly of his early fame, when, as he said, “the great crowd seized possession of me”, he managed to arrange to play his violin in string quartets with musical friends. Fame meant that he could try to advance causes he believed in, such as international scholarly and scientific collaboration. But left to himself, he valued above all his circle of friends, mostly from his days in Switzerland.

He was a theorist, who did his greatest work while a patent clerk with no access to a laboratory. He is famous for his thought experiments, not hard, bench-top, real-time experiments. So he has become the epitome of the unpractical thinker. His pacifism and physical appearance reinforced the image of an idealist dreamer. But Einstein was deeply interested in machines. In the 1950s he wrote: “I … never ceased to concern myself with technical matters. This was of benefit also to my scientific research.”

Einstein worked with Anschütz-Kaempfe on improved designs for ships’ gyrocompasses as a co-patentee. He also took out other patents, notably for a design of refrigerator (co-patentee Leó Szilárd, later to be the key founder of the Manhattan project to produce the atom bomb). The invention of fluorocarbons in 1928 meant that the Einstein-Szilárd fridge never caught on, but it is curious to contemplate that the theorist of relativity might well also have had an appliance in every kitchen.

In the 1922 papers we see the practical Einstein at work with Anschütz-Kaempfe in a patent dispute with the American Elmer Sperry concerning the gyroscope; Einstein gives expert witness in the patent hearings. Given his background in patents this is not so surprising, but it gives a frisson to hear him switch from debating space-time to urging Anschütz-Kaempfe to “plate the aluminium sphere with a more precious metal” or to find a means of “applying a layer of graphite”. This is trial-and-error work, as far removed as possible from contemplating whether or not “God plays dice”. Anschütz-Kaempfe wrote to Einstein’s colleague Arnold Sommerfeld, stating that “weary of Berlin and everything connected with it”, Einstein “wants to go into technology”.

One technology he never went into, although popular myth suggests otherwise, is nuclear fission. The equation E=mc2 proposes the enormous energetic potential of matter, but only in the most general way. Einstein’s scientific biographer wrote that “to say that this made possible the construction of nuclear weapons is like saying that the invention of the alphabet caused the Bible to be written”. What Einstein did do was use his influence to alert President Roosevelt to the danger that Germany would acquire an atom bomb.

Einstein’s genius didn’t lie in one over-developed faculty – as the crass researchers who stole his brain for analysis believed – but in a broader-than-usual range of competencies. He was mathematician, physicist, engineer, philosopher, musician and social and political activist, and he had a highly developed visual artistic sense. He attributed his findings to his intense “curiosity, obsession, and sheer perseverance”, claiming: “I myself have no special talents”. And he attributed his elucidation of relativity to his slow development, asking questions as an adult that children might toy with only to abandon as they grow up (he was 16 when he had the first intuition of the relativity paradoxes). Einstein is the classic example of a man who “hears a different drummer”. And he remained true to this: he stepped to the music he heard “however measured or far away”. And far away for him included the deepest recesses of space-time, a place no one before even knew existed.

• Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal by Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey will be published in October.

• This article was amended on 24 June 2013. The original referred to Einstein’s journey ending in Israel. This has been corrected to Palestine.

 

 

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The aesthetic Führer

An ardent patron of the arts, Hitler drew around him men with an aesthetic bent. (Speer was an architect; Goering, an art collector. Alfred Rosenberg had studied architecture; Goebbels had written plays and a novel.) He insisted that artists were as crucial to society as mathematicians and men of science.

– Maureen Mullarkey

Read the article, Aesthetic Drive

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Poetry at the Mall

The humiliation of self-conscious culture makers is the beginning of wisdom. Like this here.

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Civilization is a spiritual labor

“Civilization is a spiritual labor, an openness to revelation, a venture of faith, subsisting to a great degree on things no more substantial than myths and visions and prophetic dreams; thus it can be destroyed not only by invading armies or economic collapse, but also by simple disenchantment.”

– David Bentley Hart

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Ancient cave art in Mexico

see website here

Discovered: A Cave Art Complex That Could Be the Lascaux of Mexico

Mexican National Institute of Anthropology

In 1940, an 18-year-old apprentice mechanic named Marcel Ravidat was walking with three friends and a dog named Robot in the woods near Montignac, France. Ravidat happened upon a hole that happened to lead, Alice in Wonderland-like, to an underground cave. And that cave, it happened, was the home of some 600 paintings and 1,500 engravings, the work of humans who lived some 17,000 years ago. The caves’ walls were the craggy canvases for humanity’s oldest known experiments with art.

We may have another Lascaux on our hands. Only this one is set in Mexico. Archaeologists just announced that they’ve uncovered nearly 5,000 cave paintings at 11 different sites in the Sierra de San Carlos, a mountain range in the state of Tamaulipas. The paintings, which are striking in their vividness, are thought to be the work of hunter-gatherers who traveled the area in their wanderings. The artwork has not yet been dated, but the Tamaulipas region overall, archaeologists believe, was occupied by nomadic tribes as early as 6000 BC — so there’s a chance the paintings could be some 8,000 years old.

Mexican National Institute of Anthropology

The paintings depict humans, as well as animals (deer and lizards and, delightfully, centipedes). They depict weapons used in the hunt. They depict seemingly abstract scenes. They depict skyscapes. They hint at their painters’ concepts of religion and astronomy. And they do all this in bright shades of red and yellow and black and white — the products of organic dyes and minerals that have proven remarkably long-lasting. “The paintings,” io9’s George Dvorsky put it, “are offering an unprecedented glimpse into [Mexico’s] pre-Hispanic culture and life, including depictions of hunting, fishing, and gathering.”

Indeed. One cave alone contains some 1,550 different scenes.

The paintings, archaeologists say, were likely produced by at least three distinct groups of hunter-gatherers in the region. Which is a remarkable estimation on its own, since, prior to their discovery, archaeologists didn’t believe that pre-Hispanic people would have lived in the mountainous area. “Before it was said that there was nothing,” archaeologist Gustavo Ramírez, of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, said of the region, “when in fact it was inhabited by one or more cultures.”

Mexican National Institute of Anthropology

The paintings should offer valuable insight into those cultures — in part because they seem to be the only evidence that the cultures have left behind. “We have not found any ancient objects linked to the context,” Ramírez explained: the pottery and bones and other objects that form the detritus of civilization are, in this case, missing. “And because the paintings are on ravine walls and in the rainy season the sediments are washed away, all we have is gravel.”

Gravel, that is, and awesome, vaguely impressionistic cave paintings. And also, just as importantly, we have the dyes and minerals used to make the paint itself. Now that the discovery of the caves has been announced, the archaeologists will perform a chemical analysis to determine the exact components of the colors that cling to the rocks. And from there, they hope, they’ll be able to figure out just how long ago it was that some ancient human, roaming the mountains of Mexico, took sight of a centipede and decided to turn it into art.

Mexican National Institute of Anthropology

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