The Medieval Masterpiece, the Book of Kells, Is Now Digitized & Put Online

If you know nothing else about medieval European illuminated manuscripts, you surely know the Book of Kells. “One of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures” comments, “it is set apart from other manuscripts of the same period by the quality of its artwork and the sheer number of illustrations that run throughout the 680 pages of the book.” The work not only attracts scholars, but almost a million visitors to Dublin every year. “You simply can’t travel to the capital of Ireland,” writes Book Riot’s Erika Harlitz-Kern, “without the Book of Kells being mentioned. And rightfully so.”

The ancient masterpiece is a stunning example of Hiberno-Saxon style, thought to have been composed on the Scottish island of Iona in 806, then transferred to the monastery of Kells in County Meath after a Viking raid (a story told in the marvelous animated film The Secret of Kells). Consisting mainly of copies of the four gospels, as well as indexes called “canon tables,” the manuscript is believed to have been made primarily for display, not reading aloud, which is why “the images are elaborate and detailed while the text is carelessly copied with entire words missing or long passages being repeated.”

Its exquisite illuminations mark it as a ceremonial object, and its “intricacies,” argue Trinity College Dublin professors Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan, “lead the mind along pathways of the imagination…. You haven’t been to Ireland unless you’ve seen the Book of Kells.” This may be so, but thankfully, in our digital age, you need not go to Dublin to see this fabulous historical artifact, or a digitization of it at least, entirely viewable at the online collections of the Trinity College Library. The pages, originally captured in 1990, “have recently been rescanned,” Trinity College Library writes, using state of the art imaging technology. These new digital images offer the most accurate high resolution images to date, providing an experience second only to viewing the book in person.”

What makes the Book of Kells so special, reproduced “in such varied places as Irish national coinage and tattoos?” ask Professors Moss and Ryan. “There is no one answer to these questions.” In their free online course on the manuscript, these two scholars of art history and theology, respectively, do not attempt to “provide definitive answers to the many questions that surround it.” Instead, they illuminate its history and many meanings to different communities of people, including, of course, the people of Ireland. “For Irish people,” they explain in the course trailer above, “it represents a sense of pride, a tangible link to a positive time in Ireland’s past, reflected through its unique art.”

But while the Book of Kells is still a modern “symbol of Irishness,” it was made with materials and techniques that fell out of use several hundred years ago, and that were once spread far and wide across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. In the video above, Trinity College Library conservator John Gillis shows us how the manuscript was made using methods that date back to the “development of the codex, or the book form.” This includes the use of parchment, in this case calf skin, a material that remembers the anatomical features of the animals from which it came, with markings where tails, spines, and legs used to be.

The Book of Kells has weathered the centuries fairly well, thanks to careful preservation, but it’s also had perhaps five rebindings in its lifetime. “In its original form,” notes Harlitz-Kern, the manuscript “was both thicker and larger. Thirty folios of the original manuscript have been lost through the centuries and the edges of the existing manuscript were severely trimmed during a rebinding in the nineteenth century.” It remains, nonetheless, one of the most impressive artifacts to come from the age of the illuminated manuscript, “described by some,” says Moss and Ryan, “as the most famous manuscript in the world.” Find out why by seeing it (virtually) for yourself and learning about it from the experts above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to the Chaotic Brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat: From Homeless Graffiti Artist to Internationally Renowned Painter

By the late 1970s, New York City had fallen into such a shambolic state that nobody could have been expected to notice the occasional streak of additional spray paint here and there. But somehow the repeated appearance of the word "SAMO" caught the attention of even jaded Lower Manhattanites. That tag signified the work of Al Diaz and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the latter of whom would create work that, four decades later, would sell for over $110 million at auction, a record-breaking number for an American artist. But by then he had already been dead for nearly 20 years, brought down by a heroin overdose at 27, an age that reflects not just his rock-star status in life but his increasingly legendary profile after it.

"Born in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat spent his childhood making art and mischief in Boerum Hill," Brooklyn, says University of Maryland art history professor Jordana Moore Saggese in the animated Ted-Ed introduction above. "While he never attended art school, he learned by wandering through New York galleries, and listening to the music his father played at home."

He seems to have drawn inspiration from everything around him, "scribbling his own versions of cartoons, comic books and biblical scenes on scrap paper from his father’s office" (leading to a method that has something in common with William Burroughs' cut-up techniques). He also spent a great deal of artistically formative time laid up in the hospital after a car accident, poring over a copy of Gray's Anatomy given to him by his mother, which "ignited a lifelong fascination with anatomy that manifested in the skulls, sinew and guts of his later work."

A skull happens to feature prominently in that $110 million painting of Basquiat's, but he also made literally thousands of other works in his short life, having turned full-time to art after SAMO hit it big on the Soho art scene. The day job he quit was at a clothing warehouse, a position he landed, after a period of unemployment and even homelessness, when the company's founder spotted him spray-painting a building at night. Success came quickly to the young Basquiat, but it certainly didn't come without effort: still, when we regard his paintings today, don't we feel compelled by not just what Saggesse calls a distinctive "inventive visual language" and hyper-referential "physical evidence of Basquiat’s restless and prolific mind," but also of the glimpse they offer into the rare life lived at maximum productivity, maximum intensity, and maximum speed?

To delve deeper into the world of Basquiat, you can watch two documentaries online: Basquiat: Rage to Riches, and Jean Michel Basquiat-The Radiant Child.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Behold The Drawings of Franz Kafka (1907-1917)

Runner 1907-1908

Runner 1907-1908

UK-born, Chicago-based artist Philip Hartigan has posted a brief video piece about Franz Kafka’s drawings. Kafka, of course, wrote a body of work, mostly never published during his lifetime, that captured the absurdity and the loneliness of the newly emerging modern world: In The Metamorphosis, Gregor transforms overnight into a giant cockroach; in The Trial, Josef K. is charged with an undefined crime by a maddeningly inaccessible court. In story after story, Kafka showed his protagonists getting crushed between the pincers of a faceless bureaucratic authority on the one hand and a deep sense of shame and guilt on the other.

On his deathbed, the famously tortured writer implored his friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished work. Brod ignored his friend’s plea and instead published them – novels, short stories and even his diaries. In those diaries, Kafka doodled incessantly – stark, graphic drawings infused with the same angst as his writing. In fact, many of these drawings have ended up gracing the covers of Kafka’s books.

“Quick, minimal movements that convey the typical despairing mood of his fiction” says Hartigan of Kafka’s art. “I am struck by how these simple gestures, these zigzags of the wrist, contain an economy of mark making that even the most experienced artist can learn something from.”

In his book Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch describes what happened when he came upon Kafka in mid-doodle: the writer immediately ripped the drawing into little pieces rather than have it be seen by anyone. After this happened a couple times, Kafka relented and let him see his work. Janouch was astonished. “You really didn’t need to hide them from me,” he complained. “They’re perfectly harmless sketches.”

Kafka slowly wagged his head to and fro – ‘Oh no! They are not as harmless as they look. These drawing are the remains of an old, deep-rooted passion. That’s why I tried to hide them from you…. It’s not on the paper. The passion is in me. I always wanted to be able to draw. I wanted to see, and to hold fast to what was seen. That was my passion.”

Check out some of Kafka’s drawings below:

Horse and Rider 1909-1910

Horse and Rider 1909-1910

Three Runners 1912-1913

Three Runners 1912-1913

The Thinker 1913

The Thinker 1913

Fencing 1917

Fencing 1917

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2014.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

All the Rembrandts: The Rijksmuseum Puts All 400 Rembrandts It Owns on Display for the First Time

If you've wanted to see some Rembrandts, as most every art lover has, you've wanted to go to the Rijksmuseum. The jewel in the crown of the Netherlands' most popular museum must surely be Rembrandt's masterpiece The Night Watch, whose latest restoration will stream live this summer. But Rembrandt enthusiasts planning their first trip to the Rijksmuseum only after the completion of that restoration may want to reconsider, given that between now and June, they can see not just some Rembrandts, but all the Rembrandts.

"Rijksmuseum marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 2019 with ‘Year of Rembrandt,’" says the museum's site. "The year-long celebration opens with All the Rembrandts, in which the Rijksmuseum will present for the first time an exhibition of all 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 best examples of Rembrandt’s prints in its collection."

And "given the extreme rarity that many of these delicate drawings and prints go on display, All the Rembrandts offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to glean an unparalleled perspective on Rembrandt the artist, the human, the storyteller, the innovator."

As a project, assembling all 400 of its Rembrandts into a single coherent exhibition aligns with the impressive ambition the Rijksmuseum has shown in other areas, from restoration to digitization. Visitors will experience not just the scope of the work of that Dutch master among Dutch masters, but the span of his life. The first section, featuring Rembrandt's self-portraits, "presents the milestones of his career as a young artist"; the second "focuses on Rembrandt’s surroundings and the people in his life," family, friends, his wife, and even the variety of characters that populated the 17th-century Amsterdam around him; the third and final section reveals Rembrandt the storyteller, as seen in his paintings inspired by the Old Testament. But he may never have told a more enduringly fascinating story than he did in The Night Watch, which will naturally retain its pride of place amid All the Rembrandts.

"The 11- by 15-foot large painting shows a flurry of activity,"'s Marissa Fessenden writes of that painting. "In the center of the scene, a captain gives orders to a lieutenant as the two stride forward. A musket goes off just behind the lieutenant's hat, additional figures behind the main ones are visible only as limbs or partial faces. A boy runs off to the side with a gunpowder horn and a dog cowers near a drummer beating out a rhythm." That same degree of excitement will no doubt be on display among the crowds drawn by All the Rembrandts itself. If you plan on joining them, consider downloading the Rijksmuseum's audio tour app first. If you can't make it — or if you must insist on waiting to see the fully restored Night Watch — you can still view all the Rijksmuseum's Rembrandts online.

via Smithsonian/Artnet

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Life & Work of Edvard Munch, Explored by Patti Smith and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Look beyond the highly distressed genderless figure in the foreground of The Scream, one of the most famous painting in existence, and you'll find plenty of women. While its painter Edvard Munch was a man, as his name might suggest, the rest of his body of work featured not a few female bodies: 1895's Woman in Three Stages, 1896's Young Woman on the Beach, and in 1907's The Sick Child, a highly personal work by an artist whose mother and sister both died of tuberculosis. Or take 1895's Madonna: "However dramatically effective Munch's use of color was," writes Michael Spens of its black-printed version, "this option for black to express a mood of despair persisted, and worked with many successful results."

It was significant, Spens adds, that Munch's "depressive tendency was frequently induced by women, or by Munch's personal lack of success in love thereby, as reflected in his own affairs." The painter may have had plenty of "trouble with women" in life, as the title of Spens' essay puts it, and even now, 75 years after his death, he may find himself occasionally charged with possessing an objectifying male gaze.

But that hardly stops artistically powerful women from admiring and even championing his work: singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist Patti Smith and actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, for instance, both appear in the short Nowness documentary above to "delve into the proto-existentialist ideas and psychological themes" of that work at "Between the Clock and the Bed," a Munch exhibition that toured a few years ago.

Walking through the gallery, Smith says she's been "looking at Munch paintings for maybe 60 years, since I was very young." Looking at 1913-14's Weeping Nude, another of Munch's women, Gainsbourg comments that "the choice of colors is incredible, because they're quite ugly, but the whole thing is incredibly beautiful." To describe the beauty of 1895's Death in the Sickroom, Smith explains that the painting "expresses not the death as much as the effect the death has on others." But for all he understood about others, Munch remained a man isolated, "convinced that in order to be able to fully express yourself artistically you have to be alone," in the words of Munch Museum art historian Nikita Mathias. "You have to be an outsider, you need a certain distance to society in order to be able to describe what’s going on there” — a sentiment that can't but resonate with Smith, Gainsbourg, and other creators so fully themselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover the KattenKabinet: Amsterdam’s Museum Devoted to Works of Art Featuring Cats

Image by T_Marjorie, via Flickr Commons

There’s been quite a bit of barking in the media lately to herald the reopening of the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, relocating from St. Louis to New York City’s Park Avenue.

What’s a cat person to do?

Perhaps decompress within Amsterdam’s KattenKabinet

In contrast to the Museum of the Dog’s glitzy, glass-fronted HQ, the Cat Cabinet maintains a fairly low profile inside a 17th-century canal house. (Several visitors have noted in their Trip Advisor reviews that the 3-room museum’s grand environs help justify the €7  admission.)

The Museum of the Dog’s highly toted “digital experiences”  and redesigned atrium suggest a certain eagerness to establish itself as a major 21st-century institution.

The KattenKabinet is more of a stealth operation, created as an homage to one J.P. Morgan, a dearly departed ginger tom, who lived upstairs with his owner.

The inaugural collection took shape around presents the formidable Morgan received during his 17 years on earth—paintings, a bronze cat statue, and a facsimile of a dollar bill featuring his likeness and the motto, “We Trust No Dog.”

In spirit, the Kabinet hews closely to America’s eclectic (and fast disappearing) roadside museums.

No apps, no interactive kiosks, a stolidly old fashioned approach when it comes to display…

It does have a gift shop, where one can purchase logo t-shirts featuring an extremely cat-like specimen, viewed from the rear, tail aloft.

While the KattenKabinet’s holdings include some marquee names—Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Rembrandt—there’s something compelling about the collection’s less well known artists, many of whom embraced the museum’s pet subject again and again.

Museum founder Bob Meijer rewards virtual visitors with some juicy biographical tidbits about his artists, cat-related and otherwise. Take, for example, Leonor Fini, whose Ubu glowers below:

Fini had a three-way relationship with the Italian diplomat-cum-artist Stanislao LePri, who, like Fini, was difficult to pin into a certain style, and the Polish literary writer Constantin Jelenski. The two men were not, however, her only housemates: Fini had dozens of Persian cats around her. Indoors you rarely see a photo of her without a cat in her arms. In the Cat Cabinet you can find many of her works, from cheerfully colored cats to highly detailed portraits of cats. The women depicted in the paintings have that iconic mystique characteristic of Fini's work.

Tsuguharu Foujita, whose work is a staple of the museum, is another cat-loving-artist-turned-art-himself, by virtue of Dora Kalmus' 1927 portrait, above.

Hildo Krop is well represented throughout Amsterdam, his sculptures adorning bridges and buildings. Two Cats Making Love, on view at the Kabinet, is, Meijer comments,” clearly one of his smaller projects and probably falls into the category of "free work." One of his most famous works, and of a different order of magnitude, is the Berlage monument on Victorieplein in Amsterdam.”

In addition to fine art, the Kabinet showcases other feline appearances—in vintage advertising, Tadaaki Narita's Lucky cat pinball machine, and in the person, er, form of 5 live specimens who have the run of the place.

Those visiting in the flesh can cat around to some of Amsterdam’s other feline-themed attractions, including two cat cafes, a cat-centric boutique, and the floating shelter, De Poezenboot.

And let’s not forget the other cat museums ‘round the globe, from Minsk and Malaysia to Sylva, North Carolina’s American Museum of the House Cat.

Begin your exploration of the collection here.

via the BBC

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this March. Follow her @AyunHalliday.E

How the Mona Lisa Went From Being Barely Known, to Suddenly the Most Famous Painting in the World (1911)

Is the Mona Lisa really “ten times better than every other painting”? No one seriously believes this, and how would anyone measure such a thing? There may be no such critical scale, but there is a popular one. The Louvre, where the famous Leonardo da Vinci—maybe the most famous painting of all time—hangs, says that 80 percent of its visitors come just to see the Mona Lisa. Her enigmatic smile adorns merchandise the world wide. Books, essays, documentaries, songs, coffee mugs—hers may be the most recognizable face in Western art.

Learn in the Vox video above, however, how that fame came about as the result of a different kind of publicity—coverage of the Mona Lisa theft in 1911. It became an overnight sensation. “Before its theft,” notes NPR, “the ‘Mona Lisa’ was not widely known outside the art world. Leonardo da Vinci painted it in 1507, but it wasn't until the 1860s that critics began to hail it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting. And that judgment didn't filter outside a thin slice of French intelligentsia.”

Though the painting once hung in the bedroom of Napoleon, in the 19th century, it “wasn’t even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre,” historian James Zug tells All Things ConsideredWriting at Vox, Phil Edwards describes how an essay by Victorian art critic Walter Pater elevated the Mona Lisa among art critics and intellectuals like Oscar Wilde. His overwrought prose “popped up in guidebooks to the Louvre and reading clubs in Paducah.” Yet it was not art criticism that sold the painting to the general public. It was the intrigue of an art heist.

In 1911, an Italian construction worker, Vincenzo Perugia, was working for the firm Cobier, engaged in putting several paintings, including the Mona Lisa, under glass. While at the Louvre, he hatched a plan to steal the painting with two accomplices, brothers Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti. The crime was literally notorious overnight. The theft occurred on Monday morning, August 21. By late Tuesday, the story had been picked up by major newspapers all over the world.

Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire went on trial for the theft (their case was dismissed). Conspiracy theories popped up all over the place, claiming, as per usual, that the whole thing was a hoax or a distraction engineered by the French government. “Wanted posters for the painting appeared on Parisian walls,” Zug writes at Smithsonian. “Crowds massed at police headquarters. Thousands of spectators, including Franz Kafka, flooded the Salon Carré when the Louvre reopened after a week to stare at the empty wall with its four lonely iron hooks.”

Once the painting was restored, the crowds kept coming. Newspaper photos and police posters gave way to t-shirts and mousepads. The painting's undoubted excellence seemed incidental; it became, like Andy Warhol's soup cans, famous for being famous. Learn more about the Mona Lisa’s long strange trip through history in the short Great Big Story video above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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