To Err is Molly

I’m not dead! Or at least not any deader than the last time I posted, uh…four months ago. I’m disappointed in me.

I need to make a correction on an older post, When discussing depictions of Judith, I wrote:

Remember, most Judith paintings are by men. The most interesting one, however, is by a woman. Artemesia Gentileschi was a female “Carravagisti.” Not only is the cool composure gone in her painting, but it’s swung in the other direction. Judith is not squeamish. In fact, she rather seems to be enjoying the deed. The history is shady, but it’s possible that Gentileschi was raped as a young woman. So she’s turned the myth of the danger of the female sex on it’s head and executed a brutal revenge painting. As opposed to men merely falling into the dangers associated with women, Gentileschi asserts that they totally had it coming.

A commentor and I suspect Genileschi expert pointed out that there is ample evidence of the artist’s rape. So this is my official redaction of the “shady” bit.

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I Love Cats. I Love Every Kind of Cat (in Art).

It was never a question of if I would write about cats in art, but when. Whelp, it looks like the time has come. Animal symbolism is all over the place in art. Felines pop up everywhere from Ancient Egyptian sculpture and hieroglyphics to 19th century French painting. Some animals, like ravens, are bad omens. Dogs usually symbolize openness, friendliness, and loyalty (like in The Arnolfini Wedding or The Venus of Urbino, for example). Cats, however, are used in so many different contexts that they don’t really have one accepted metaphor.

Let’s start at the very beginning (ish). In Ancient Egypt, cats were not always deities, but certainly had spiritual significance. They were beloved domestic animals, cared for and revered by all members of a household. They were also thought to ward off evil spirits! So that’s why my house is so peaceful, er, well it doesn’t have evil spirits anyway. Felines were so respected in Egyptian culture that anyone who killed one was sentenced to death. The goddess Bastet was part feline, and the daughter of the all important Ra. Her prayer asks the goddess to keep evil from the minds of the devout.

Albrecht Durer’s Adam and Eve. Note the cat.

Albrecht Durer was the most famous engraver of the Northern Renaissance, and in my humble opinion a right prodigy. I think sometimes art historians read too much into paintings, but Durer rarely put anything in his work that didn’t mean something. In his version of Adam and Eve, there are four animals along for the ride, each representing one of the “four temperaments.” In the earliest days of psychology, bodily fluids or “humours” were thought to be responsible for personality traits and behaviors. The temperaments are sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic. The kitty cat in Durer’s engraving represents the choleric – a personality characterized by connoisseurship of extreme emotional states: passionate, assertive, but prone to deep bouts of dolor. I always thought that cats would be a relaxed phlegmatic: rational, chill, and a bit passive-aggressive. But I guess even cats get the blues.

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience

The 19th century is probably my favorite era for cats in art (yeah, there’s a hierarchy). I wrote long ago when I was 19 and probably a terrible writer about how Manet’s Olympia places a cat in the salon as opposed to the Venus of Urbino‘s dog, to run with the theme of unwelcome, intrusion, and turning the male gaze back on itself. The Awakening Conscienceby Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt is a masterpiece of the “fallen woman” genre. Allegedly the original patron couldn’t stand to look at the woman’s pained expression, and Hunt re-did it, more tempered. In these domestic scenes, you might expect to find a dog, a symbol of warmth and family. However, this painting is supposed to be disturbing!

The woman rises from her chair, while her lover plays on, oblivious to her dilemma. The message is clear in the context of Victorian culture: her morality is compromised. Many objects in the rather garish room speak to this theme. The cat under the table toys with a bird. The bird seems to be alive but in the midst of battle for life and death. If the cat functions in a similar way to Olympia, it could represent threat and snubbing – the treatment this woman would receive by society if she continues her current lifestyle. However, the bird could symbolize her slight chance of redemption.

It turns out cats are pretty fascinating animals, eh? At least fascinating enough to be a motif across millennia and eras of art history. It makes sense. Hopefully you a have cat, possibly staring at you as we speak. Look into its eyes. Do you really ever know what it’s thinking? These mysterious creatures are subject to countless projections of what we think, but they’ll never let us in on the truth.

By the way, I love cats.

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Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?

Hello hello and happy last year of the world!

I’ve started a new semester full of fascinating courses, the contents of which I will promptly shove down your throats…after my classes tomorrow.

For my first post of 2012, I’d like to ask you a question. When I started this blog, it was just a fun thing to do on my own. But now since I have achieved world fame the few, the proud: the readership, I want to know what you’d like to read to about. Are you groaning at the thought of more macabre? Too bad. Seriously though, are you craving more feminist takes? More Albrecht Durer? I can always talk more about video games. I can post pictures of my cats.

My own journey in my discipline has taken more of a philosophical and political direction in the past year. I don’t just talk about the art in front of us, but why someone would need to make it, and what it speaks to culturally. But if you really want, cats all the way.

If no one comments on this I’m going to write exclusively about Impressionism. Just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to myself.

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A Call to (Better) Arms

Shieldmaiden Hervor by Peter Nicolai Arbo

I must talk about video games again, and I’ll have you know that while researching this post, I passed up an article called “Art and Death in the Middle Ages.” The sacrifices I make!

Last week an article titled “Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits” caught my attention. Ryan (no last name?), the author, discusses the utter ridiculousness of female costumes in fantasy and gaming. If you are a female or an even ever so slightly progressive male and like games, you know this is a major point of contention.  My favorite characters are some amazing women, but their clothes often reduce conversation to their physical beauty. For example, take Celes Chere from Final Fantasy VI in her Amano concept art:

Celes Chere by Yoshitaka Amano

And what her in-game sprite wears:

Celes’s sprite

Most female characters in the series (and in rpgs at large) are physically weak white mages, Celes is a former general. So while she can use magic, she’s also a powerful attacker. The imperial soldiers in the game wear full armor, but Celes gets a sexy (?) leotard. Now, I know the Amano costume isn’t the most practical either, but Celes is much more covered without losing any of her beauty. The same phenomenon occurs in Final Fantasy IX. The male soldiers wear a full suit of armor, where the female force and general wear revealing clothes. Beatrix of Alexandria is an awesome character, and I think she would be just as powerful (and beautiful) in practical armor. There are far fewer examples of highly objectify-able male warriors in fantasy. The Dothraki horsemen are pretty nifty and favor agility over protection, and I think Michael Fassbender was shirtless for most of 300, but female fighters usually get the short end of the armor stick.

The aforementioned article was inspired by an addictive Tumblr, Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor. Both sources point out the historical basis for both practical and flexible armor. Medieval Norse culture had a tradition of “shieldmaidens,” usually noble women who participated in armed conflict. The eighth century Veborg fought for the Scandinavian king Harald. This legendary warrior was valuable in battle, even cutting off her army’s opponent’s jaw before her death. The painting at the top of the page shows a romanticized version of a shieldmaiden. While her clothes are still feminine, she is fully covered and wears chain mail.

There are other examples of real life women fighters. Joan of Arc, the obvious example, wears armor almost identical to men’s armor in drawings. Jeanne de Penthièvre of Brittany was said to wear armor into battle and while defending her home after her husband died. To me, these women are no less feminine or beautiful for wearing traditionally masculine costume. Creating more female characters with practical armor would not only help us girl gamers feel less pigeonholed, but hopefully teach all gamers that  allure can come from a personality just as much as a sexy costume.

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Distant Worlds

Yoshitaka Amano’s Cecil Harvey

My life fell apart this year. There’s not really a better way to say it. I lost the most precious things imaginable to me, including a lot of my self identity. Sorry to be such a downer. If you’ve been reading this blog since it’s genesis, you know I’ve tried a variety of treatments. A few weeks ago, I found one in an unexpected place: Final Fantasy. While any entry in the beloved series was not the first video game I loved – like many kids of my generation that was Ocarina of Time – it was the series that left the biggest impression on me. In fourth grade I was hard core about Final Fantasy IX. It’s funny now, because the game has a lot of themes that are quite complex for even a mature nine year old. The story is full of existential crises, love, death, friendship, and the meaning of life.  I replayed this game, and am working through others. Surprisingly, it’s helping me.

I also realized that Final Fantasy may have actually been a big influence on my love of art. Creative pursuits and high culture have always been a part of my life, but I never sought out art or art history materials until at least middle school. So my first true “art book” was probably The Art of Final Fantasy IX. It’s truly astounding to see the detail the creators put into every background, non player character, and monster. I was drawing all the time after I got that book! Amano remains one of my favorite artists to this day.

Still looking for a good white mage cape

With all the bad rap that video games get, most of the Final Fantasy stories are full of good role models. From dark knight Cecil Harvey who becomes a force of light to save the world to Princess Garnet, who goes through trauma after trauma, only to put aside her sorrow to think about her subjects and friends. The games are damn smart, too! VI has an opera for Bahamut’s sake! Two characters from IX fall in love in what amounts to a comedy of errors in true Shakespearan fashion.

Don’t get me started on the music! I’m convinced part of my appreciation for beautiful and layered composition comes from my gaming past. “Theme of Love” and “Aria di Mezzo Carattere” bring me to tears. Nobuo Uematsu’s gorgeous scores brought the places and characters fans love to life.

I realize I’m having a total sapfest right now. But great games really can touch lives. And even Final Fantasy characters get depressed, which is a bit of realism anyone with psychiatric pain can appreciate. I believe the great RPGs will always have a special mark on my (our?) generation. Do you remember the first time the ending screen appeared after completing a game you loved? It’s a type of bittersweet that’s hard to come by, and that I wouldn’t trade.

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The Second Annual Starving Art Historian Gift Guide

What is it about gift guides, you guys? I will read stupid magazines I normally hate if it’s the holiday issue. There’s something about stuff just crammed onto one page and sorted into neat categories that makes me think having a rickshaw would be a fine idea. While I’m figuring out who in my house would tote me around, here are some gift ideas that make more sense.

For the Tiny Art Historian


1. Archiquest Kings and Castles: Medieval Europe

This gorgeous set of blocks is painted with classic scenes of knights and royalty. I still want one. I almost got one last year for an adult friend. Blocks are  some of the best toys for young children, in my opinion. There’s a lot of wiggle room for the imagination. Plus, the wee’uns can learn about flying buttresses. There are also Chinese, Byzantine, and Roman sets if that’s more your jam.

2. Can You Find It?: Search and Discover More Than 150 Details in 19 Works of Art by Judith Cressy

I loved I-Spy books as a kid (some of those attic rooms were so creepy). It’s a great way to shut children up. But with this art historical spin on the concept, they can be quiet and learn at the same time. It’s a bit more sophisticated than I-Spy as well, so it’s recommended for grades 2-5. The book includes art from Ancient Egypt to the 20th Century. It’s like if my introductory courses in college were  games.

3. Derwent Inktense Pencils

Drawing is a hobby that can keep the brain buzzing for a lifetime. I remember when my brother, a talented artist, visited the Lake District of England and brought back some Derwent charcoals. I was pretty transfixed and sleek black pencils made me want to draw all the damn time. These pencils are a mix between watercolor and pen-and-ink styles, with vibrant hues.

For the Purists



1. Phaidon’s The Art Museum

Egyptian death masks…treat yo self! The Great Wave…treat yo self! Jan van Eyck…treat yo self! Better yet, get someone else to buy you this book! And to buy me this book! This walloping collection has over 2,700 works of art in amazing detail. The idea really is to have a tiny museum on your table (or as a table), so there’s also all the fun of wall placards without the walls. For the art history lover in your life, I can’t think of a better gift. Especially if they live far away from most of the country’s major museums. Cough.

2. The Great Museums Series

This award winning documentary series explores the world’s museums in hour long or half hour long specials. There’s something for everyone, from a run down of the Met’s entire collection or a discussion of the influential Phillipe de Montebello, to a show on the National Museum of the American Indian. The only drawback is that it’s very North American centric, so nothing on the Uffizi or the Louvre, kids. The hour long shows go by pretty fast and are engaging at all levels of knowledge. It warms my heart that things like this are out there.

3. A one year membership to your loved one’s favorite museum

This is truly a wonderful thing to give an art lover. Nothing compares to the first-hand experience. Some art hungry folks might be hard up for the membership fee. You’d also be surprised by how many people live right by a great museum and never go…here’s their impetus!

For the Irrevent, Weird, and Probably Friends of Mine

Pieta Charm Necklace

1. A Tiny Michelangelo’s Pieta

Your very own andachtsbild that fits in the palm of your hand! Spacepearls on Etsy has wide collection of normal things made small to wear, and that’s always an adorable concept. There’s also the Birth of Venus and David, if you like your jewelry more explicit. But I like this sad little devotional image. Crosses are just a little impersonal. Rosaries are probably blasphemous. So this is somewhere in between. If I have to explain why wearing a miniature famous work of art is cool, this section of the gift guide wasn’t designed for you.

2. The Cat in Art by Stefano Zuffi

An art historian wrote a book featuring 170 works of art featuring cats. Why isn’t he director of the Met or the head of Oxford’s department of the History of Art? Why isn’t he my best friend? If you don’t like this book, you have no soul.

3. Pretzel of the Month Club

Heh. This is what I would give to all my amazing readers if I were richer. It’s actually a great gift for anyone and everyone. I ❤ pretzels.

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A Different Sort of Goth

6th century Ostrogothic helmet

The Dark Ages get the shaft of history and art history pretty often. Of course, it’s not a rare specialty, but over the centuries it has been derided. One of the first major art historians, Giorgio Vasari, had almost nothing good to say about them. But you know who has it even worse? The mercenaries and barbarians in the interlude after the fall of Rome and before the darkness settled. Written off as by man as uncultured and war hungry, the barbarian tribes that gained considerable power in the fifth century were both cunning military strategists and artists worth studying.

Italy’s crowning achievements in art history may be Roman art and the Renaissance, but the nation actually owes a lot of its traditions to the barbarians. Some of the Late Roman Empire’s most powerful allies were the foederati. Foederati is derived from the Latin term for treaty. Though barbarian tribes, including the Franks and Visigoths, were not granted Roman citizenship, they were expected to provide military force to aid Rome. Without this band of mercenaries, Rome could not have defeated the Huns in 451.

The history of this period is pretty incestuous. Two famous barbarian kings were foederati: Alaric I of the Visigoths and Odoacer, a military leader of mixed or ambiguous ethnicity. These two men helped establish an amazing hotbed of art historical treasures: Ravenna. Alaric did not attack Ravenna in the early 400s, so the imperial capital was moved to this undamaged city. After Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of Rome, he set up shop in Ravenna. Odoacer was killed (during dinner!) and surplanted by Theodoric, turning Ravenna into the hub of the Ostrogothic empire.

5th century shoebuckle with garnets

Why does all this matter to art history? Clearly the barbarian tribes were damned clever at forming alliances and using their military prowess as leverage, but they also knew how to use art. Ostrogothic helmets from the 6th century have been found in very spread out locations, leading historians to believe they were made as gifts to win over visiting dignitaries. On the flip side, the beautiful buckle pictured may be a treasure given to tribes to persuade them to assist Rome. In other words, art mattered! The tribes grappling for power after Rome’s fall were not only concerned with political strategy, but cultivating and preserving their own aesthetic culture.

Art was also used as a way to manipulate and mark one’s territory. When Justinian, the great leader of the Roman Empire in Byzantium, took over Ravenna, he probably covered mosaics of Theodoric with his name, a bit like the destruction of Hatshepsut’s image in ancient Egypt. Besides portraiture and coins, the Franks, Lombards, and Ostrogoths also had a rich tradition of making exquisite pieces for burials, a custom that has most likely influenced Western European monarchy’s elaborate tombs and treasures laid to rest with its rulers. The Lombardic crown was even used for Italian monarchs up until the twentieth century.

TL;DR: We owe even the more obscure cultures quite a bit, whether  it’s a military or artistic tradition.

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