Russian History & Literature Come to Life in Wonderfully Colorized Portraits: See Photos of Tolstoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

Colorized episodes of I Love Lucy verge on sacrilege, but Olga Shirnina, a translator and amateur colorist of considerable talent, has unquestionably noble goals when colorizing vintage portraits, such as that of the Romanovs, above.

In her view, color has the power to close the gap between the subjects of musty public domain photos and their modern viewers. The most fulfilling moment for this artist, aka Klimblim, comes when “suddenly the person looks back at you as if he’s alive.”

A before and after comparison of her digital makeover on Nadezhda Kolesnikova, one of many female Soviet snipers whose vintage likenesses she has colorized bears this out. The color version could be a fashion spread in a current magazine, except there's nothing artificial-seeming about this 1943 pose.

“The world was never monochrome even during the war,” Shirnina reflected in the Daily Mail.

Military subjects pose a particular challenge:

When I colorize uniforms I have to search for info about the colours or ask experts. So I’m not free in choosing colors. When I colorize a dress on a 1890s photo, I look at what colors were fashionable at that time. When I have no limitations I play with colours looking for the best combination. It’s really quite arbitrary but a couple of years ago I translated a book about colours and hope that something from it is left in my head.

She also puts herself on a short leash where famous subjects are concerned. Eyewitness accounts of Vladimir Lenin’s eye color ensured that the revolutionary’s colorized irises would remain true to life.

And while there may be a market for representations of punked out Russian literary heroes, Shirnina plays it straight there too, eschewing the digital Manic Panic where Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Bulgakov are concerned.

Her hand with Photoshop CS6 may restore celebrity to those whose stars have faded with time, like Vera Komissarzhevskaya, the original ingenue in Chekhov’s much performed play The Seagull and wrestler Karl Pospischil, who showed off his physique sans culotte in a photo from 1912.

Even the unsung proletariat are given a chance to shine from the fields and factory floors.

Browse an eye popping gallery of Olga Shirnina’s work on her website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Archaeologists Discover the World’s First “Art Studio” Created in an Ethiopian Cave 43,000 Years Ago

Images via PLOS

If you want to see where art began, go to a cave. Not just any cave, but not just one cave either. You'll find the best-known cave paintings at Lascaux, an area of southwestern France with a cave complex whose walls feature over 600 images of animals, humans, and symbols, all of them more than 17,000 years old, but other caves elsewhere in the world reveal other chapters of art's early history. Some of those chapters have only just come into legibility, as in the case of the cave near the Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa recently determined to be the world's oldest "art studio."

"The Porc-Epic cave was discovered by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Henry de Monfreid in 1929 and thought to date to about 43,000 to 42,000 years ago, during the Middle Stone Age," writes Sarah Cascone at Artnet.

There, archaeologists have found "a stash of 4213 pieces, or nearly 90 pounds, of ochre, the largest such collection ever discovered at a prehistoric site in East Africa." The "ancient visitors to the site processed the iron-rich ochre stones there by flaking and grinding the raw materials to produce a fine-grained and bright red powder," a substance useful for "symbolic activities, such as body painting, the production of patterns on different media, or for signalling."

In other words, those who used this ochre-rich cave over its 4,500 years of service used it to produce their tools, which functioned like proto-stamps and crayons. You can read about these findings in much more detail in the paper "Patterns of change and continuity in ochre use during the late Middle Stone Age (MSA) of the Horn of Africa: The Porc-Epic Cave record" by Daniela Eugenia Rosso of the University of Barcelona and Francesco d’Errico and Alain Queffelec of the University of Bordeaux. In it, the authors "identify patterns of continuity in ochre acquisition, treatment and use reflecting both persistent use of the same geological resources and similar uses of iron-rich rocks by late MSA Porc-Epic inhabitants."

The Ethiopian site contains so much ochre, in fact, that "this continuity can be interpreted as the expression of a cohesive cultural adaptation, largely shared by all community members and consistently transmitted through time." The more evidence sites like the Porc-Epic cave provide, the greater the level of detail in which we'll be able to piece together the story of not just art, but culture itself. Culture, as Brian Eno so neatly defined it, is everything you don't have to do, and though drawing in ochre might well have proven useful for the prehistoric inhabitants of modern-day Ethiopia, one of them had to give it a try before it had any acknowledged purpose. Little could they have imagined what that action would lead to over the next few tens of thousands of years.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download 200+ Belle Époque Art Posters: An Archive of Masterpieces from the “Golden Age of the Poster” (1880-1918)

Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth: what a time and place to be alive. Or rather, what a time and place to be alive for people in the right countries and, more importantly, of the right classes, those who saw a new world taking shape around them and partook of it with all possible heartiness. The period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, best known by its French name La Belle Époque, saw not just peace in Europe and empires at their zenith, but all manner of technological, social, and cultural innovations at home as well.

We here in the 21st century have few ways of tasting the life of that time as rich as its posters, more than 200 of which you can view in high resolution and download from "Art of the Poster 1880-1918," a Flickr collection assembled by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

"In the late nineteenth century, lithographers began to use mass-produced zinc plates rather than stones in their printing process," says the accompanying text. "This innovation allowed them to prepare multiple plates, each with a different color ink, and to print these with close registration on the same sheet of paper. Posters in a range of colors and variety of sizes could now be produced quickly, at modest cost."

Like other of the most fruitful technological advancements of the era, this leap forward in poster-printing drew the attention, and soon the efforts, of artists: well-regarded illustrators and graphic designers like Alphonse Mucha, Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec took to the new method, and "The 'Golden Age of the Poster' was the spectacular result." While many of the best-remembered posters of that Golden Age come from France, it touched the streets of every major city in western Europe as well as those of England and America, all places whose well-heeled populations found themselves newly and avidly interested in art, photography, motion pictures, magazines, bicycles, automobiles, absinthe, coffee, cigarettes, and world travel.

The companies behind all those exciting things had, of course, to advertise, but unlike in earlier times, they couldn't settle for getting the word out; they had to use images, and the most vivid ones possible at that. They had to use them in such a way as to associate what they had to offer with the abundant spirit of the time, whether they called that time La Belle Époque, the Wilhelmine period, the late Victorian and Edwardian era, or the Gilded Age. All those names, of course, were applied only in retrospect, after it became clear how bad times could get in the twentieth century. But then, none of us ever realize we're living through a golden age before it comes to its inevitable end; until that time, best just to enjoy it. You can enter the poster archive here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the World’s Oldest Violin in Action: Marco Rizzi Performs Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 on a 1566 Amati Violin

Most of us are acquainted with the sorrowful sound of the world’s smallest violin, but what of the world’s oldest?

The instrument in the video above dates back to 1566.

Meaning, if it were the patriarch of a human family, siring musical sons every 20 to 25 years, it would take more than 10 generations to get to composer Robert Schumann, born in 1810.

And then another 31 years for Schumann to compose Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op . 121, the piece violinist Marco Rizzi–age unknown–coaxes from this lovely piece of wood.

Were you to peek at the back, you’d see traces of King Charles IX of France’s coat of arms. The Latin motto Pietate et Justitia–piety and justice–still lingers on its rib.

It was constructed by the master creator, Andrea Amati, as part of a large set of stringed instruments, of which it is one of four survivors of its size and class.

After leaving Charles’ court, the violin spent time in the Henry Hottinger collection, which was eventually acquired by the Wurlitzer Company in New York. In 1966, it was donated to Cremona, Italy, Amati’s birthplace and home to an international school of violin making.

Venerable unto the point of pricelessness, from time to time it is taken out and played–to wondrous effect–by world class violinists. It’s tempting to keep anthropomorphizing, so as to wonder if it might not prefer a forever home with a gifted young musician who would take it out and play it every day. I know what a children's author would say on that subject.

You can view Amati’s Charles IX violin in more detail here, but why stop there, when you can also like it on Facebook!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine - issue 58 is hot off the press. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Renaissance Knives Had Music Engraved on the Blades; Now Hear the Songs Performed by Modern Singers

Image courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum

On any given weekend, in any part of the state where I live, you can find yourself standing in a hall full of knives, if that’s the kind of thing you like to do. It is a very niche kind of experience. Not so in some other weapons expos—like the Arms and Armor galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where everyone, from the most warlike to the staunchest of pacifists, stands in awe at the intricate ornamentation and incredibly deft craftsmanship on display in the suits of armor, lances, shields, and lots and lots of knives.

We must acknowledge in such a space that the worlds of art and of killing for fame and profit were never very far apart during Europe’s late Medieval and Renaissance periods. Yet we encounter many similar artisanal instruments from the time, just as finely tuned, but made for far less belligerent purposes.

As Maya Corry of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge—an institution with its own impressive arms and armor collection—comments in the video above (at 2:30), one unusual kind of 16th century knife meant for the table, not the battlefield, offers "insight into that harmonious, audible aspect of family devotions,” prayer and song.

From the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge. (Johan Oosterman )

These knives, which have musical scores engraved in their blades, brought a table together in singing their prayers, and may have been used to carve the lamb or beef in their “striking balance of decorative and utilitarian function.” At least historians think such “notation knives,” which date from the early 1500s, were used at banquets. “The sharp, wide steel would have been ideal for cutting and serving meat,” writes Eliza Grace Martin at the WQXR blog, “and the accentuated tip would have made for a perfect skewer.” But as Kristen Kalber, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses the knives at the top of the post, tells us “diners in very grand feasts didn’t cut their own meat.” It’s unlikely they would have sung from the bloody knives held by their servants.

The knives’ true purpose “remains a mystery,” Martin remarks, like many “rituals of the Renaissance table.”  Victoria and Albert Museum curator Kirstin Kennedy admits in the video above that “we are not entirely sure” what the “splendid knife” she holds was used for. But we do know that each knife had a different piece of music on each side, and that a set of them together contained different harmony parts in order to turn a roomful of diners into a chorus. One set of blades had the grace on one side, with the inscription, “the blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat.” The other side holds the benediction, to be sung after the dinner: “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.”

Common enough verbiage for any household in Renaissance Europe, but when sung, at least by a chorus from the Royal College of Music, who recreated the music and made the recordings here, the prayers are superbly graceful. Above, hear one version of the Grace and Benediction from the Victoria and Albert Museum knives; below, hear a second version. You can hear a captivating set of choral prayers from the Fitzwilliam Museum knives at WQXR’s site, recorded for the Fitzwilliam's “Madonnas & Miracles” exhibit. We are as unlikely now to encounter singing kitchen knives as we are to run into a horse and rider bearing 100 pounds of finely-wrought wearable steel sculpture. Such strange artifacts seem to speak of a strange people who valued beauty whether carving up the main course or cutting down their enemies.

via WQXR/@tedgioia

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

How Did the Romans Make Concrete That Lasts Longer Than Modern Concrete? The Mystery Finally Solved

An explosion in recent years of so-called “ruin porn” photography has sparked an inevitable backlash for its supposed fetishization of urban decay and economic devastation. Documenting, as theorist Brian McHale writes, the “ruin in the wake of the deindustrialization of North American ‘Rust Belt’ cities” like Detroit, “ruin porn” shows us a world that only a few decades ago, thrived in a post-war economic boom that seemed like it might go on forever. Our morbid fascination with images from the death of American manufacturing offers a rich field for sociological inquiry. But when scientists look over what has happened to so much of the architecture from the early to mid-twentieth century, they’ve mostly had one very pressing question:

What is going on with the concrete?

Or more specifically, why do structures built only a few years ago look like they’ve been weathering the elements for centuries, when buildings thousands of years old, like many parts of the Pantheon or Trajan’s Markets in Rome, look like they’re only a few years old? The concrete structures of the Roman Empire, writes Nicole Davis at The Guardian, “are still standing more than 1,500 years after the last centurion snuffed it.” Roman concrete was a phenomenal feat of ancient engineering that until recently had stumped scientists who studied its durability. The Romans themselves “were aware of the virtues of their concrete, with Pliny the Elder waxing lyrical in his Natural History that it is ‘impregnable to the waves and every day stronger.”

The mystery of the Roman concrete recipe has finally been revealed. Researchers at the University of Utah have just published a study in American Mineralogist showing how the compound of “volcanic ash, lime (calcium oxide), seawater and lumps of volcanic rock” actually did, as Pliny claimed, become stronger over time, through the very action of those waves. “Seawater that seeped through the concrete,” notes Davis, “dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystalizing in their place.” These new crystals reinforce the concrete, making it more impervious to the elements. Modern concrete, “by contrast… is not supposed to change after it hardens—meaning any reactions with the material cause damage.” (The short video above explains the process in brief.)

The recent study builds on previous work conducted by lead author, University of Utah geologist Marie Jackson. In 2014, Jackson, then at the University of California, recreated the Roman concrete recipe and discovered one of the minerals within it that makes it superior to the modern stuff. But it took a couple more years before she and her colleagues figured out the role of seawater on forming the rare crystals. Now, they are recommending that builders begin using Roman concrete in the near future for seawalls and other marine structures. The research “opens up a completely new perspective for how concrete can be made,” says Jackson. “What we consider corrosion processes can actually produce extremely beneficial mineral cement and lead to continued resilience, in fact, enhanced perhaps resilience over time.”

As we increasingly turn our postmodern gaze toward the failures of postwar industrialization–toward not only crumbling cities but crumbling dams and bridges–one secret for building infrastructure that can last for centuries comes to us not from an algorithm or an AI but from an ancient recipe combining the primeval forces of volcanoes and ocean waves.

via The Guardian

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

Hand-Colored Photographs from 19th Century Japan: 110 Images Capture the Waning Days of Traditional Japanese Society

What we euphemistically refer to as the “Opening of Japan” catalyzed a period of seismic upheaval for the proud formerly closed country. Between the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1853 and the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japanese society changed rapidly due to the sudden forced influx of foreign capital and influence, much of it destructive. “Unemployment rose,” writes historian John W. Dower, “Domestic prices soared sky high…. Much of Japan was wracked by famine in the mid 1860s…. As if all this were not curse enough, the foreigners also brought cholera with them.” They also brought photography, and both Western and Japanese photographers documented not only the country’s profound transformation, but also its traditional dress and culture.

Closed for 200 years, Japan became a source of endless fascination for Westerners as artifacts made their way across the sea. Among them was “an extensive photographic documentation of Japan,” notes the New York Public Library, and “of interaction between the Japanese and foreigners” (Commodore Perry’s expedition to Tokyo Bay included a daguerreotype photographer.)

“In the broadest sense, photography entered Asia from Europe and America as part of the process of colonialism, but soon took root in those regions with local photographers.”

The colorized images you see here come from the NYPL’s large collection of late 19th century Japanese photography, taken by photographers like the Italian-British Felice Beato and his Japanese student Kimbei, who “assisted Beato in the hand-coloring of photographs until 1863,” then “set up his own large and flourishing studio in Yokohama in 1881.” The archive provides “a rich resource for the understanding of the political, social, economic, and artistic history of Asia from the 1870s to the early 20th century.” These images date from between 1890 and 1909, by which time much of Japan had already been extensively westernized in dress, architecture, and style of government.

To many Japanese, the old ways, sustained through a couple hundred years of isolation, must have seemed in danger of slipping away. To many Westerners, however, the encounter with Japan offered a kind of cultural renewal. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out, “a tidal wave of foreign imports” from Asia, including “woodcut prints by masters of the ukiyo-e school… transformed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art." European collectors, traders, and artists discovered a mania for all things Japanese, even as some of its cultural forms threatened to disappear. Enter the NYPL’s digital collection, Photographs of Japan, here.

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

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