Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Darwin Smiling Broadly

While reading Diana Donald and Jane Munro, eds., Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Selection and  the Visual Arts (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2009), we were surprised to run across a caricature of Charles Darwin in which he is (to our surprise) smiling broadly. According to the caption (p. viii), it is a colored lithograph that initially appeared in Vanity Fair on September 30, 1871. You can also see it online here. In Endless Forms, it is described as showing "aspects of Darwin's characteristic appearance described by his son Francis, but seldom portrayed. He habitually raised his seat with cushions or footstools, and sat with 'his legs crossed, and from being so thin they could be crossed very far…When he was excited with pleasant talk,' his face and 'whole manner' were 'wonderfully bright and animated.'"

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When Dali Came To Iowa

In 1952, Salvador Dali gave ten presentations at schools and museums in the US, beginning with a lecture on "Revolution and Tradition in Modern Painting" at the Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls, on the evening of Wednesday, February 6. His visit had been arranged by Herbert V. Hake, chairman of the college's Lecture-Concert Series Committee, who had chosen Dali as a replacement for Edward R. Murrow, the celebrated CBS new analyst, who was unable to appear. More…

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Away Down Outh in Ixie

From Irish novelist Colm Toibin, author of The South, in Robin Robertson, ed., Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (NY: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 120-121—

[In the 1990, Toibin was interviewed about his prize-winning novel on a television show. A prior guest that day on the same program was American writer Norman Mailer, who, in the process of departing, paused in the studio and looked closely at the cover of Toibin's book:]

"The Outh," he [Mailer] said approvingly, touching the jacket of the book.

"No," [Toibin recalled] I said almost breathlessly, "The South."

He seemed puzzled. We both looked down at the jacket.

The graphic designer had made a beautiful S in a different color and typeface to the "O-u-t-h," so that the last four letters were perfectly clear against a blue background, but the S was not so clear. I traced my figure along the S to show him it was there. He smiled sadly.

"So it's not The Outh?" His tone was amused, relaxed, mellow. He seemed to have liked saying the word Outh, he had made it long and glamorous-sounding and the afterglow of saying it stayed with him now in a slow smile. 

He began to turn. His wife was waiting for him.

"I thought it was an Irish word," he said.

Brain Dead?

As reported by Sam Kashner in his Beat Generation memoir, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School (NY: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 43—

"I [Billy Burroughs] would ask him [his father, novelist William S. Burroughs] what he was thinking and he would tell me that he was trying to imagine what was going through Lincoln's brain when he was shot."

"A bullet?" I said.

Are You Moaw?

From our stash of great Iowa stories and quips, as related in Peter Maas, Underboss (NY: Harper, 1997), p. 466, with thanks to Ryan McAdam—

[When Sammy 'The Bull" Gravano agreed to cooperate with the FBI in prosecuting John Gotti and other members of the Gambino family, an initial meeting was arranged between Gravano and a federal agent named Bruce Moaw. The meeting began as follows:] Bruce Moaw walks over and shakes my hand [Gravano recalled]. He opened the door and I got in. I told him, "Are you Moaw?" He says, "Yes," and I said, "I heard you were from Iowa."

He said that was right and I said, "Well, if I got to trust somebody, it might as well be somebody from Iowa." And off we went.

All Over Der Trouserz

A great story from British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough in his autobiographical Life on Air (London: BBC Books, 2002)—

[During a live interview on BBC-TV, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz agreed to appear on camera, unrehearsed, with a greylag goose. Moments later] a keeper from the London Zoo walked on to the set carrying a goose which he put down on a low table that stood between the professor and myself. The goose, naturally enough, was somewhat perturbed at suddenly being thrust under the bright television lights and began to flap its wings.

"Komm, komm, mein Liebchen," said Konrad, soothingly, putting his hands on either side of the goose's body so that its wings were held folded down. He was holding it so that its head was pointed away from him. This was sensible in that he was not then within range of the goose's beak which it showed every wish to use, if it got the chance. But that, of course, meant that its rear was pointing towards the professor and the goose, in a flurry, squirted a jet of liquid green dung straight at him.

"Oh dear dear," said Konrad. "All over der trouserz." He released the goose, which flapped off the set and was neatly fielded by its keeper, took out his handkerchief and carefully wiped his trousers clean. Then, finding his handkerchief in his hand, in his embarrassment, he promptly blew his nose on it.

He completed the interview with a green smear down the side of his face…

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ballast Reviews | In Search of Memory

In Search of Memory. A film by Petra Seeger. 95 mins. DVD, Color, 2008. Available from Icarus Films.

This is a forceful, well-made film about Eric Kandel, an Austrian-born Jewish-American psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and Nobel Prize winner who is primarily known for his work on the physiology of memory. More

Reversible Vase

A humorous, brief encounter between Frank Lloyd Wright and young graphic designer Alvin Lustig, as reported in R. Roger Remington and Barbara J. Hodik, Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1989), p. 124—

The exposure [of Lustig] to Wright was short-lived. He was soon chafing under the strictures of doing things the Wright way. An anecdote from his Taliesin visit has him being shown into a room and instructed to wait there for Wright. As he glanced around, Lustig noticed that there was a blue vase against a blue wall and a white vase against a white wall. He exchanged the blue vase and the white vase. Wright entered the room, and as he spoke his first words to Lustig, replaced the blue vase against the blue wall and the white vase against the white wall.

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).  


A Young Lion

As recollected by British philosopher Bertrand Russell in Barry Feinberg, ed., The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 268—

On one occasion [during his childhood] after we had been talking about cannibalism, I heard my people say to each other: "When is that Eton boy coming?" and I thought they meant a boy who had been eaten. When he turned up and was a perfectly ordinary boy, it caused me the most profound disenchantment. But that was not the worst. The worst instance was when I heard them say to each other, "When is that Lyon coming?" And I said, "Is there a lion coming?" "Oh yes," they said, "and you'll see him in the drawing room and it'll be quite safe." And then they came and said, "The young Lyon has come," and they ushered me into the drawing room and it was a completely conventional young man whose name was Lyon. I burst into tears and wept the whole of the rest of the day, and the poor young man couldn't imagine why.

Ballast Reviews | Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L. Aberth. Burlington VT: Lund Humphries, 2004. 160 pp., with 115 illus., color and b&w. Clothbound. ISBN 0-85331-908-1.

Reproduced in this book is a famous photograph, taken in New York in 1942, of a group of mostly European artists, in "exile" in the US. They are arranged in three rows, in a quietly comical manner: Everyone in the back row faces left, those in the center face right (with one exception), and those in the front row face whatever direction they like. Of the fourteen artists in the photograph, eleven are men, but, as if to anticipate recent concerns about gender inequality, each row contains one woman, including Peggy Guggenheim (of Guggenheim Museum fame), Berenice Abbott (the famous photographer), and a largely obscure painter named Leonora Carrington. More

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nasty, Brutish and Short

From Michael Winter, The Big Why: A Novel (NY: Bloomsbury, 2004), an "historical fiction" about the life of American artist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), who was a student of Abbott H. Thayer and contributed to Thayer's work on protective coloration or natural camouflage. Among Kent's friends was Thayer's son, naturalist Gerald H. Thayer, author of Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom

Gerald Thayer once said to me, I'm afraid of dying. He was afraid, he said, that there might be a life after death. He was afraid that he believed there might be a God. He did not want it. He could not bear the thought of living again, after death. Seventy years, yes. But forever? It depressed the hell out of him. A short life excited him. He thought that when [Thomas] Hobbes said life was nasty, brutish, and short, he meant the last quality as a relief.

Josephine Baker

From Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2007)—

Much has been written about the house that [Austrian architect] Adolf Loos designed in 1928 for Josephine Baker, the African-American dancer and star of the Paris stage. By now it is quite clear that the unbuilt project, which exists only as a model and a set of drawings, had everything to do with Loos's desires and nothing to do with Baker's. Having met Baker at "Chez Josephine," her Paris nightclub, the architect boasted that he could design a beautiful home for her: the result was a passionate displacement of desire, an architectural reverie in which Loos imagined a series of spaces in which Baker was displayed for his private entertainment, including a deep indoor swimming pool with windows below water level.

And from the autobiography of Richard F. Sterba, titled Reminiscences of a Viennese Psychoanalyst (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982)—

A group of us went with [Hungarian psychiatrist Sandor] Ferenczi to a nightclub at which the famous American dancer Josephine Baker was performing. We all enjoyed the graceful, supple movement of her beautiful body and were enthusiastic about her performance. After her appearance on stage, Josephine joined the audience. I have  no idea what made her pick out Ferenczi for an enchanting little scene. She came to our table and in a most natural fashion sat on Ferenczi's lap. She glided her hand through her own black hair, which was smoothly and tightly glued to her scalp by a heavy pomade. Then she stroked the bald center of Ferenczi's head and, rubbing the pomade on his hairless scalp, said, "So, that will your hair grow."

A few years, while browsing through a reference book on Modern writers, we came across a statement by Nebraska-born writer Virgil Geddes (an expatriate in Paris in the 1920s), in which he claimed that it was he who, as an English-speaking backstage assistant at the Folies Bergere, was responsible for helping Josephine Baker with the outfit for her famous banana dance (or Danse sauvage). She was, according to Geddes, "cavorting, clad only in a string of bananas fastened around her waist. My job was to clasp the bananas from behind her on two hooks before the stage curtain parted for her act out front."

Bridging Lexicographical Gaps

Transformations. Metamorphoses. Evolutions. There are lots of great visual examples of course. But in E.J. Kahn, Jr.'s Year of Change: More About The New Yorker and Me (NY: Viking, 1988), he talks about his preoccupation with "bridging the lexicographical gap" between two (preferably antonymous) words, for example, love and hate (love-lave-have-hate); cock and crow (cock-cook-cool-fool-foul-soul-sour-slur-slum-glum-glim-grim-gram-cram-craw-crow); and frown and smile (frown-grown-grows-glows-slows-stows-stops-stope-stole-stile-smile).

Ballast Reviews | William Roberts

William Roberts: An English Cubist by Andrew Gibbon Williams. Burlington VT: Lund Humphries, 2004. 154 pp., with 100 illus., color and b&w. Clothbound $70.00. ISBN 0-85331-824-7.

Some people (myself among them) have long admired the second tier of artists in Vorticism, a hybrid Cubist-Futurist group that formed in London at the start of World War I (in part in opposition to Roger Fry's Omega Workshops). More

No BTUs About It

Buck Johnson, quoted in Remar Sutton and Mary Abbott Waite, eds., The Common Ground Book: A Circle of Friends. Latham NY: British American Publishing, 1992, p. 272—

Cousin Sally wanted an air conditioner, so she went into Metter [Georgia] to buy one, and they said: "Miss Sally, what size you want?"

She said, "I don't know."

They said, "Well how many BTUs do you want?" 

She said, "I don't know a thing in the world about BTUs. All I know is I want an air conditioner with enough BTUs to cool a b-u-t-t as big as a t-u-b." She was really large.

Horror Vacuii

Francois Rabelais
Nature abhors a vacuum.

—Hey, Pop, vot is a vacuum?
—A vacuum is a void.
—I know it's a void, but vot does dat void mean?

Charles Bragg—
Nature abhors a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Tennessee Williams
A vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Drawing in the Dark

It was Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the day on which war on Japan was declared. That morning, a drawing instructor named Hoyt L. Sherman arrived at his office at Ohio State University in Columbus to find his colleagues—still stunned by the news of the bombing—discussing how they, as teachers of art and design, could contribute to the American war effort. Sherman joined the discussion—and, within a matter of hours, he had come up with a curious plan. More…

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What I Most Dread

An entry from the diary of British writer Frances Partridge (1900-2004), associated with the Bloomsbury Group, dated March 19, 1940, as quoted in Simon Brett, ed., The Faber Book of Diaries (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 102—

What I most dread is that life should slip by unnoticed, like a scene half glimpsed from a railway carriage window. What I want most is to be always reacting to something in my surroundings, whether a complex of visual sensations, a physical activity like skating or making love, or a concentrated process of thought; but nothing must be passively accepted, everything modified by passing it through my consciousness as a worm does earth. Here too comes in my theory that pleasure can be extracted from experiences which are in themselves neutral or actually unpleasant, with the help of drama and curiosity, and by drama I mean the aesthetic aspect of the shape of events. The exceptions are physical pain and anxiety, the two most stultifying states; I can't hold intensity of experience to be desirable in them.

Ballast Reviews | Them

Them: A Memoir of Parents by Francine du Plessix Gray. New York: Penguin Press, 2005. 530 pp., with 92 b&w illustrations. Clothbound. ISBN 0-59420-049-1.

…I have often run across the name of this book's author (so colorful who could forget it), a frequent New Yorker contributor who was also once a student at Black Mountain College, at a time when others at that school included Robert Rauschenberg (with whom she played strip poker), Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. More…

Forgive Us Our Christmasses

From the Notebooks of British novelist Samuel Butler (author of Erewhon)—

The little Strangs say the "good words," as they call them, before going to bed, aloud and at their father's knee, or rather in the pit of his stomach. One of them was lately heard to say "Forgive us our Christmasses, as we forgive those who Christmas against us."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dazzle Camouflage Posters

In February and March 2009, the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design presented an exhibition of ship camouflage diagrams and related artifacts from its collection. The exhibit, titled Bedazzled, was comprised in part of colored lithographic plans produced by artists working for the US government during World War I. RISD received the collection in 1919 from one of its alumni, graphic designer Maurice L. Freedman, who had been a District Camoufleur at Jacksonville FL during the war. The exhibit was accompanied by a one-day symposium titled Artists at War: Exploring the Connections Between Art and Camouflage on February 14. Detailed information and thumbnail images of these prints can still be accessed online at In addition, it was recently announced that archival full-size prints of ten of the plans can now be purchased at in the Fine Art product category. In coming years, the library plans to release an annual edition of ten plans (five sets of starboard and port sides). This year's selected prints include Type 1 and Type 2 camouflage plans, representing Tankers and Standard Steel ships. More…

Bête Noir

As reported by Lady Maud Warrender (wife of Sir George John Scott Warrender of Lochend, 7th Baronet) in My First Sixty Years

The beauty of Lord Curson's first wife had impressed the Indians. She was the daughter of Mr. Joseph Leiter of Chicago. Her mother's twistings of words are worthy of immortality: "What did I like best in Rome? Why, the Apollo with the beveled ear, the Dying Alligator and Romeo and Juliet being suckled by the wolf." She used to say that it was essential to have a ventre-à-terre in Paris; also that she had given her decorators bête noir to do what they liked; and she thus described her first meeting with her future husband at a costume ball—"He was dressed in the garbage of a monk and I said to Momma, 'Alma Mater, Ecce Homo!'"

Ballast Reviews | Proteus

Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision. A film by David Lebrun. 61 mins. DVD, color and b&w, 2004. Available from Icarus Films

My favorite statement by German scientist Ernst Haeckel is not mentioned in this film. A zoologist, scientific illustrator, and advocate of pantheism ("God is everywhere"), he wrote in 1899, in The Riddle of the Universe, that the typical Christian description of God is that of "a gaseous vertebrate." More…

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Father of Camouflage

Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) was a 19th century artist who was always intensely interested in human vision and the coloration of animals. Although he was prominent at the turn of the century, he had been largely forgotten until recently "rediscovered," as a result of the current research of the role of artists in the development of modern camouflage. There is now a film about his life, titled Invisible: Abbott Thayer and the Art of Camouflage (PRP Productions, 2008) as well as an Abbott Thayer blog. More…

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Goober Peas Prize

Emily Sardonia, quoted in Steven J. Zeitlin, Amy J. Kotkin and Holly Cutting Baker, eds., A Celebration of American Family Folklore: Tales and Traditions from the Smithsonian Collection (NY: Pantheon, 1982), p. 173—

Every time we came home from the store with a new jar of peanut butter, my dad, when we would go out of the room, would write the initials of the one he thought had been the best that week. And then the next morning, or whenever we'd go to open the peanut butter to put on some toast or something, he'd call the person, and they'd come running around, and he'd say, "Oh, look what's here!" And he would tell us that it was the little fairy that lived in the light downstairs, whose name was Matilda and that she had done it. That used to make you be good so you could get your name in the peanut butter.

Living With Morphodites

Bunny Johnson, as quoted in Remar Sutton and Mary Abbott Waite, eds., The Common Ground Book: A Circle of Friends (Latham NY: British American Publishing, 1992), p. 274—

We've some good friends who put words together more entertainingly than most of us. For instance, at Christmas they put "ointments" on the tree. Once when she went to visit the Mennonites up in Jefferson County, she stopped to ask the policeman where the "morphodites" lived.

When his ulcer was acting up, he reported that the doctor had told him "not to eat any more plumage." That give new insight into the meaning of "roughage," doesn't it?

World-class achievements go into the "Gideon's Book of Records." And once after a "hockey expedition game," they took us out for "garnished hen."

They've had such an influence on their friends that sometimes we can't remember whether the color, for instance, is really "burgamy" or not.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The What If Method

From American type designer Ken Lew (designer of Whitman), as quoted in Karen Cheng, Designing Type (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 8—

For me, ideas generally come from "what if" scenarios. What if Joanna had been designed by W.A. Dwiggins, instead of by Eric Gill? What if Mozart had been a punchcutter—rather than a composer?

Compare that with an excerpt from Sid Caesar's account of how he and his colleagues wrote jokes for The Show of Shows (c1949), from his autobiography, Where Have I Been? (NY: Crown Publishers, 1982), p. 86—

We sat around tossing ideas back and forth, and we developed material of what we called the "What if?" category. Someone would say, "What is Christopher Columbus were an usher at Roxy Theatre?" and we'd take it from there, with Columbus navigating people to their seats. Or, "What if Leonardo da Vinci worked as a short-order cook?" and we'd have Leonardo sort of painting sandwiches together like each one was a work of art.

Or this by Robert Fitzgerald about a game he sometimes played with his friend James Agee, in Fitzgerald, ed., The Collected Short Prose of James Agee (NY: Ballantine Books, 1970), p. 23—

On one of these Sunday excursions when I went along I remember that we amused ourselves during the long black blowy subway ride by playing the metaphor game: by turns each describing an inanimate object in such a way as to portray without naming a public figure. Jim developed a second-hand flute into Leslie Howard, and a Grand Rapids easy chair into Carl Sandburg.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

John Washington's Collages

Earlier this year, I saw online for the first time a suite of collages created by John Washington, a senior lecturer in graphic design at the University of Bolton in England. I was greatly impressed by this series, in part because, while they appear to have been made by hand (through traditional cut-and-paste methods), they were instead constructed entirely on a computer. The term "small finds" is an archaeological phrase for discovered artifacts of unusual interest or value. John's collages are autobiographical, using scans of family photographs, letters, and other documents, and were in part the artist's means of coming to terms with his father's death in 2008. I began to exchange e-mails with him, and during the month of November 2009, I mounted a small exhibition of his collages at the Gallery of Art at the University of Northern Iowa. Fortunately, he has also posted them online at a website here, along with some of the source images and his reflections on the work. In news reports of the exhibition, I was quoted as saying this: "John Washington's work is a reminder that we do not yet appreciate the expressive potential of images that are made on computer."

Ballast Reviews | Forever

Forever. A film by Heddy Honigmann. 97 mins, DVD, Color, 2006. Available through Icarus Films.

This is a thoughtful, informative film about one of the most interesting places on Earth: A centuries-old, 118-acre cemetery, the largest burial area in the City of Paris. More…

Einstein As Tobacco Thief

From Abraham Pais (1918-2000), Niels Bohr's Times: In Physics, Philosophy and Polity (Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 13—

[During a brainstorming session at Princeton with Niels Bohr, during which Bohr paced around his office, he] then asked me if I could note down a few sentences as they emerged during his pacing. It should be explained that, at such sessions, Bohr never had a full sentence ready. He would often dwell on one word, coax it, implore it, to find the continuation. This could go on for several minutes. At that moment the word was "Einstein." There was Bohr, almost running around the table and repeating: "Einstein…Einstein…" It would have been a curious sight for someone not familiar with him. After a little while he walked to the window, gazed out, repeating every now and then: "Einstein…Einstein…"

At that moment the door opened very softly and Einstein tiptoed in [from the office next door]. He indicated to me with a finger to his lips to be very quiet, an urchin smile on his face. He was to explain a few minutes later the reason for his behavior. Einstein was not allowed by his doctor to buy any tobacco. However, the doctor had not forbidden him to steal tobacco, and this was precisely what he set out to do now. Always on tiptoe he made a beeline for Bohr's tobacco pot, which stood on the table at which I was sitting. Meanwhile Bohr, unaware, was standing at the window, muttering "Einstein…Einstein…" I was at a loss what to do, especially because I had at that moment not the faintest idea what Einstein was up to.

Then Bohr, with a firm "Einstein" turned around. There they were, face to face, as if Bohr had summoned him forth. It is an understatement to say that for a moment Bohr was speechless… A moment later the spell was broken when Einstein explained his mission and soon we were all bursting with laughter.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cincinnati Camouflage

Opening soon at the Art Academy of Cincinnati: An exhibition titled SEAGOING EASTER EGGS: Artists' Contributions to Dazzle Ship Camouflage at the Convergys Gallery at 1212 Jackson Street beginning January 15, 2010, through February 12.

It includes photographs, camouflage diagrams, ship models and other historic artifacts that pertain to the contributions of artists to World War I US naval camouflage, particularly dazzle camouflage.

As the exhibit's curator, I will lecture on the subject at 7:00 pm, Thursday, January 28 in the Proctor and Gamble Lecture Hall, an event sponsored by the Cincinnati AIGA. On the following day, Friday, January 29, there will also be a reception in the gallery from 5:00 to 9:00 pm. The exhibit is free and open to the public during gallery hours: Mon-Fri 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, and Sat-Sun 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.


An excerpt from Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), Journal II 1957-1967 (University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 270—

Richard Stern arrived and told us some juicy anecdotes about two Rumanian "princesses" ninety years old whom he had met in Venice. One of them, drinking her coffee, brought the cup too close to her face—and, Stern went on, the nose, probably restored with a wax cast, began to melt and finally fell into the coffee…

A Dirty World

From Philip Thicknesse (1719-1792), A Year's Journey Through France and Spain (1789)—

In short, my dear sir, we must take the world, and the things in it, as they are; it is a dirty world, but, like France, has a vast number of good things in it.

Found Poem

Tony Batchelor, a former colleague at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, sent me this in 1992, a found poem "taken from the objects listing of a major American museum"—





Ballast Reviews | Objectified

Objectified. A film by Gary Hustwit. 75 mins. DVD, color, 2009.

As I watched this film, I remembered that Susanne K. Langer once wrote "Art is the objectification of feeling." No doubt this came to mind because of the title, but also—as producer Gary Hustwit explains (in a preface that comes in the case with the disk)—because one of the purposes of the film is to question our attitudes toward standardized, mass-produced objects…More…

Remembering Rudi

For more than a decade in the 1990s and later, I exchanged letters with Gestalt psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) some of them wonderfully funny. One day, he sent me this story—

The physicist George Gamow was also an entertaining popularizer. He once told the story of how with his wife and their baby daughter he visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As they climbed the steps, they noticed an increasingly musty smell, which they first attributed to the ancient walls of the building. Then, however, they began to suspect their little girl, and by the time they reached the top it was clear that she needed immediate attention. "And from the very place," explained Gamow, raising his arm and his voice dramatically, "where Galileo launched his experimental objects we also propelled…" More…

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ear Say

An entry from the diary of Caroline Fox, dated 29 March 1843, published in Simon Brett, ed., The Faber Book of Diaries (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 114—

The Rabbi's wife told me that all her uncles and aunts are deaf; they may scream as loud as they like in Uncle Jacob's ear to no purpose, but, by addressing his nose, he becomes quite accessible; an aunt's mode of approach is her teeth.

A Call From Nature Put On Hold

A wonderful story from British poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) in John Goldsmith, ed., Stephen Spender: Journals 1939-1983 (NY: Random House, 1968), pp. 310-311—

As soon as I got up to give my lecture [in October 1975 at New Mexico State University at Los Cruces] I was seized with violent diarrhea pains—a nightmare situation come true! It seemed to me that I kept on saying confused sentences, though luckily some of the lecture hung together. No one seemed to have noticed. I even pulled myself together sufficiently to do well in answering questions after the talk. Then of course everything delayed my getting to a lavatory. People asking for autographs, the ones too shy to get up in front of the audience asking their little private questions. There was some difficulty in finding a lavatory. Then when the chairman did take me to one, NOT IN USE was written across MEN on the door. We found another and as soon as I got into it an elderly gentleman emerged from one of its stalls and said, "Didn't I meet you twenty years ago? Now where was it? What did you speak about, etc." I said, "Excuse me, I'll speak to you afterwards, outside" and dashed into the place he had left.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ballast Reviews | Secret Museums

Secret Museums. A film by Peter Woditsch. DVD, color, 77 mins, 2008. Available from Icarus Films.

One of the things that I learned from this film is that the wily Michelangelo, in painting the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, included a view of the buttocks of God Almighty. More…

Ballast Reviews | Mind In Motion

Mind in Motion. A film by Philippe Baylaucq, Francoise Linderman and Veronique Maison. DVD, color, 52 mins, 2008. Available from Icarus Films.

This is a superb overview of how the scientific view of the human brain has changed in recent years as a result of brain imaging—using scanning technology to track which areas of the brain are activated in response to this or that event. More…

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rhyme Genie

I've been trying out a software called Rhyme Genie, advertised as "the ultimate rhyming dictionary for songwriters, lyricists, poets, rappers, jingle writers, copywriters and wordsmiths alike." Aside from all that, I think it might be useful in understanding the various ways in which we see similarities (and, by implication, distinctions) between this and that, more visual than verbal in the case of designers and artists. Here are thirty kinds of rhyme for which one can search with this software—

Additive Rhyme, Alliteration, Amphisbaenic Rhyme, Apocopated Rhyme, Assonance, Broken Rhyme, Consonance, Diminished Rhyme, Double Assonance, Double Consonance, Elided Rhyme, Family Rhyme, Feminine Pararhyme, Final Syllable Rhyme, First Syllable Rhyme, Full Assonance, Full Consonance, Half Double Rhyme, Homophones, Intelligent Rhyme, Light Rhyme, Metaphone, Pararhyme, Perfect Rhyme, Related Rhyme, Reverse Rhyme, Rich Rhyme, Soundex, Trailing Rhyme, Weakened Rhyme

In several books and essays, I've talked about the apparent parallels between pictura et poesis, hence the poetry of sight, a phrase that was lifted from James A.M. Whistler. For thoughts about this in relation to "esthetics and anesthetics," see how form functions.

Mal de Mer

Oliver Percy Bernard (1881-1939) was an odd bird—at very least—albeit he called himself "Bunny." An Art Deco-era architectural, furniture and scenic designer, he was profoundly deaf, conspicuously short, large-headed, and splenetic. He was, in the words of his former secretary, "amusing, utterly impossible, kind, and a bully" (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Other distinctions include his having survived the sinking of the Lusitania (although completely unable to swim), as well as extended service as a British camouflage artist (or camoufleur) during World War I (he worked directly with Solomon J. Solomon and André Mare, among others), an experience he later described in a wonderfully readable memoir called Cock Sparrow [his wartime nickname] (London: Jonathan Cape: 1935). There are remarkable passages on nearly every page of that autobiography, including this description of the most dreadful seasickness in his godawful days as a deck boy—

…Sickened each day by revolting food, becoming more and more nauseated every night on lookout at the fo'c'sle head, Bunny gradually starved and finally collapsed; after two days helpless in his bunk, he was hauled out by the captain, who put a broom in his hands with which he had scarcely strength to balance himself on his feet. So, after four voyages across the Atlantic without digestive embarrassment, he now experienced genuine mal de mer, without attention of stewards, under conditions that would kill a good many "saloon" sailors. Clinging feebly to a deck broom, bewildered, starving for some of that affection without which daily bread the soul is famished, through eyes of despair he gazed at just such a coast as tortured Ulysses in his bonds; it was the coast of Cornwall and Devon, so near and unmistakably so far from a floating slum under foreign flag. Tottering into the captain's cabin, scarcely above a whisper he begged to be put ashore. Captain Knudsen harshly inquired, "And who will take you that way, unless you swim?" (pp. 52-53)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sight Unseen

An especially memorable passage from Adaptive Coloration in Animals (London: Methuen, 1940) by British zoologist Hugh B. Cott (1900-1987), a World War II camouflage instructor, whose research and writings are all but unknown—

So accustomed are we to reject what the eye sees in nature, so dull and dead have we become as a result of visual experience, that to appreciate the wonder and wealth of color around us we must be shown our surroundings in some novel or unusual manner—in a picture, for instance, or as they appear when we stand on our heads, or when seen inverted in the focusing screen of a camera. Indeed, so largely does experience enter into and modify our perception of objects, that many people are quite unable to accept what the eye gives them, but only what they have learned to expect it is giving them: they see only what they know. They have lost that power which artists by patient striving have recovered, and which Ruskin calls the "innocence of the eye." (p. 2)

I wonder if Cott was aware of the research of American artist and optical physiologist Adelbert Ames II (1880-1955), who also focused on the role of past experience in human perception, which he explored through a series of "laboratory set-ups," now called the Ames Demonstrations.