Meet Notorious Art Forger Han Van Meegeren, Who Fooled the Nazis with His Counterfeit Vermeers

People love stories of successful criminals. They must possess some admirable qualities, we assume, some great daring or cunning or keen insight. Myths supplant reality, and we forget about the networks of enablers that help ruthless but not especially bright people succeed. But successful art forgers present us with another case entirely. “Forgers, by nature, prefer anonymity,” notes the site Essential Vermeer 3.0, “and therefore are rarely remembered.” Yet the evidence of their mastery lies incontrovertibly before us, fooling collectors, curators, and even art historians. Fakes, may be “the great art of our age.”

Or so claims the subtitle of 2013 book Forged, in which philosopher and conceptual artist Jonathon Keats surveys the careers of six notorious forgers, including Dutch artist Han van Meegeren, who “tricked the world—and the Nazis—with his counterfeit Vermeer paintings,” the TED-Ed lesson above tells us.

Van Meegeren’s biography seems almost scripted. Having failed to interest critics in his work as a young man, he became embittered and decided to revenge himself upon the art world with fakes. His choice of Vermeer was “ambitious” to say the least, given the Baroque painter’s reputation for a unique technical brilliance.

He worked for six years to re-create Vermeer’s materials and techniques and perfect an aging process for his canvases. The forensic science that would today detect such methods was not sufficiently advanced at the time. Yet “even today,” the lesson notes, authenticity is a matter of the “subjective judgment of specialists.” Van Meegeren used such dependence on authority against the experts by creating a work he knew would fill in a historical gap, an early religious period of Vermeer’s from which no works survived; also, conveniently, a period when the artist’s talents were less developed.

“In 1937,” Essential Vermeer writes, “Abraham Bredius… one of the most authoritative art historians,” who had “dedicated a great part of his life to the study of Vermeer” pronounced van Meegeren’s fake Vermeer, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (detail above), “a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio.” His praise was so effusive it allowed no room for doubt. This was “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft… every inch a Vermeer.”

Van Meegeren counterfeited works by several other Dutch masters and “was so good,” says the narrator of a Sotheby’s profile, above, “that he duped art experts, museums, and even Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring.” And here, the usual admiration for art forgers—who can seem like heroic tricksters next to their greedy, overconfident marks—takes a patriotic turn. Tried for collaboration, the forger argued he was in fact a national hero for trading another counterfeit Vermeer, Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery (below), to Göring for 200 works of looted Dutch art.

Van Meegeren's defense depended on him convincing the court that he had made the painting. This took some doing. He had even forgone using models so there would be no witnesses. As Sotheby’s Director of Scientific Research James Martin and art historian Jonathan Lopez show us, van Meegeren’s work really was that convincing, its flaws nearly undetectable. He did serve two years for forgery and fraud, but in the end achieved his early desire for artistic fame and his later wish to be regarded as an outlaw hero. Perhaps more than most art world forgers, he is deserving of both reputations.

Related Content:

Anatomy of a Fake: Forgery Experts Reveal 5 Ways To Spot a Fake Painting by Jackson Pollock (or Any Other Artist)

How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edition of Galileo’s Scientific Work, and Almost Pulled it Off

F for Fake: Orson Welles’ Short Film & Trailer That Was Never Released in America

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

Watch the Oscar-Winning Animated Short “Hair Love”

African-American hair has been making headlines for the last few years, usually because another black student has been deemed in violation of the dress code for sporting braids, dreads, or a natural afro.

This year’s Oscar-winning animated short, "Hair Love," about an African-American dad’s attempt to stay on top of his 5-year-old daughter’s abundant locks, is the sweet alternative to these upsetting news stories.

Little Zuri’s dad, Stephen, doesn’t have to battle clueless or unfair administrators on his daughter’s behalf, but he does need to gain the upper hand on an adversary with whose ways he’s unfamiliar. (His own hair is styled in tidy dreadlocks.)

It’s implied that tending to Zuri’s hair is not exactly something he volunteered for, and indeed we learn that the task was previously the domain of her mother

In desperation, Stephen seeks advice in the form of YouTube videos, finding a plethora, as did filmmaker and former NFL wide receiver Matthew A Cherry, who referenced some of his actual inspirations in the film, like the viral video of DJ Hines’ attempt to contain daughter Chloe’s thick hair with a ponytail holder, below.

Cherry raised the necessary funding on Kickstarter, and completed the film in about six weeks after posting a call for collaborators on Twitter:

Any 3D artists follow me? I got an Oscar worthy short film idea to go with this image. Get at me 

As Cherry points out in the trailer for "Hair Love"’s accompanying book, Zuri’s robust, kinky curls—almost a third character according to illustrator Vashti Harrison—are a marvelous excuse to bust stereotypes by placing an involved, African-American dad front and center.

The tale has also won a lot of fans in the cancer survivor community for its deft portrayal of the effects of Zuri’s mom’s illness and recovery on the family.

Read the San Francisco Film Festival’s teaching guide to "Hair Love" here.

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Watch the Pioneering Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-American Filmmaker

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City this month for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A 1665 Advertisement Promises a “Famous and Effectual” Cure for the Great Plague

There is a level of avarice and depravity in defrauding victims of an epidemic that should shock even the most jaded. But a look into the archives of history confirms that venal mountebanks and con artists have always followed disaster when it strikes. In 1665, the Black Death reappeared in London, a disease that had ravaged medieval Europe for centuries and left an indelible impression on cultural memory. After the rats began to spread disease, terror spread with it. Then came the advertisements for sure cures.

“Everyone dreaded catching the disease,” notes the British Library. “Victims were often nailed into their houses in an attempt to stop the spread… They usually died within days, in agony and madness from fevers and infected swellings.” This grotesque scene of panic and pain seemed like a growth market to “quack doctors selling fake remedies. There were many different pills and potions,” and they “were often very expensive to buy and claimed, falsely, to have been successfully used in previous epidemics.”

Surely, there were many in the medical profession, such as it was, who genuinely wanted to help, but no honest doctor could claim, as the broadside above does, to have discovered a “Famous and Effectual MEDICINE TO CURE THE PLAGUE.” So confident is this ad that it lists the names and locations of several people supposedly cured (and promises to have cured “above fifty more”). You can go look up “Andrew Baget, in St. Gile’s,” or “Mrs. Adkings. In Coven Garden,” or “Mary-Waight, in Bedford-Bury.” Ask them yourself! Only, that might be a little difficult as you’ve currently got the plague…. (See a transcription of the advertisement here.)

This particular example appears to have been a guild effort. At the bottom of the pamphlet we find a list of merchants offering the needed ingredients for the medicine, which sufferers would presumably mix themselves, having first visited the shops of Mr. Leonard Sowersby, Mr. Heywoods, Mr. Owens, Mr. Goodlaks, a second Mr. Heywoods, and Mrs. Elizabeth Calverts (potentially infecting others all the time.) Customers were clearly desperate. They aren’t even given the stamp of a physician’s approval, only the merchants' promise that others have returned from the brink by means of an “infallible Powder” that also cures “Small-Pox, Fevers, Agues, and Surfeits.” Children should take half a dose.

17th century physicians fared little better against the plague than doctors had over 300 years earlier when the disease first made its appearance in Europe in 1347, traveling from Asia to Italy. They did what they could, as the BBC points out, recommending “mustard, mint sauce, apple sauce and horseradish” as dietary aids. Other attempted 14th century cures included “rubbing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake (if available) on the boils or cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over an infected body.”

This sounded specious to many people at the time. One 1380 source, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, stated sarcastically, “doctors need three qualifications: to be able to lie and not get caught; to pretend to be honest; and to cause death without guilt.” Such qualifications have always suited those intent on careers in government or finance, where times of trouble can be highly profitable. We are fortunate, however, for the advances of modern medicine, and for medical professionals who risk their lives daily for victims of COVID-19, even if some other human qualities haven’t changed since people tried to end pandemics by marching through the streets whipping themselves.

Related Content:

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Download Classic Works of Plague Fiction: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shelley, to Edgar Allan Poe

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Novel the Coronavirus Has Made a Bestseller Again

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

Classic Songs Re-Imagined as Vintage Book Covers During Our Troubled Times: “Under Pressure,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” “Shelter from the Storm” & More

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, how many of us sought solace from the turbulent 21st century in cultural artifacts of bygone eras? Our favorite records by the likes of the Beatles, Queen, David Bowie; our favorite novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Philip K. Dick: all of them now possess a solidity that seems lacking in much current popular culture. The work of all these creators has its own kind of artistic daring, and all of it, too, also came out of times troubled in their own way.

Hence the cultural resonance that has long outlasted their first burst of popularity — and that fuels the visual mash-ups of Todd Alcott. A professional screenwriter and graphic designer, Alcott takes mid-20th-century works of graphic design, most often paperback book covers, and reimagines them with the lyrics, themes, and even imagery of popular songs from a slightly later period. This project is easier shown than explained, but take a glance at his Etsy shop and you'll understand it at once.

You'll also take notice of a few mash-ups especially relevant to the present moment, one in which we all feel a bit "Under Pressure." The whole of "Planet Earth," after all, has found itself subject to the kind of deadly pandemic that only happens "Once in a Lifetime," if that often.

Increasingly many of us feel the need to "Call the Doctor," but increasingly often, the doctor has proven unavailable. Most of us can do no better than seeking "Shelter from the Storm" — and some of us have been forced by law to do so.

In some countries, all this has begun to feel like "Life During Wartime." Extended periods confined to our homes have rendered some of us "Comfortably Numb," and no few Americans have begun to say, "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." Perhaps you've even heard from friends who describes themselves as in the process of "Losing My Religion." Some see humanity as plunging into "The Downward Spiral" that ultimately means "It's the End of the World as We Know It."

Others say "Don't Worry About the Government," expecting as they do a "Revolution" for which they've already begun to arm themselves with "Lawyers, Guns and Money." But how many of us can really say with confidence what a post-coronavirus world will look like, and how or whether it will be different from the one we've grown used to? Best to draw all we can from the wisdom of the past — whatever form it comes in — and bear in mind that, as a 20th-century sage once put it, "Tomorrow Never Knows." You can purchase copies of Todd Alcott's covers (which extends well beyond what appears here) at his Etsy shop.

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David Bowie Songs Reimagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: Space Oddity, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

Talking Heads Songs Become Midcentury Pulp Novels, Magazines & Advertisements: “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and More

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Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers & Vintage Movie Posters

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What is Albert Camus’ The Plague About? An Introduction

Topping lists of plague novels circulating these days, Albert Camus’ 1947 The Plague (La Peste), as many have been quick to point out, is about more than its blunt title would suggest. The book incorporates Camus’ experience as editor-in-chief of Combat, a French Resistance newspaper, and serves as an allegory for the spread of fascism and the Nazi occupation of France. It also illustrates the evolution of his philosophical thought: a gradual turn toward the primacy of the absurd, and away from associations with Sartre’s Existentialism.

But The Plague’s primary subject is, of course, a plague—a fictional outbreak in the Algerian “French prefecture” of Oran. Here, Camus relocates a 19th century cholera outbreak to sometime in the 1940s and turns it into the rat-borne epidemic that killed tens of millions in centuries past. As Daniel Defoe had done 175 years before in A Journal of the Plague Yeardrawing on his own experiences as a journalist—Camus “immersed himself in the history of plagues,” notes the School of Life. Camus even quotes Defoe in the novel's epigraph: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not."

Camus “read books on the Black Death that killed 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century; the Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000 people across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.” Perhaps more timely now than in its time, The Plague puts Camus’ historical knowledge in the mind of its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who remembers in his growing alarm “the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousand deaths in a single day.”

Rieux embodies another theme in the novel—the seemingly endless human capacity for denial, even among well-meaning, knowledgeable experts. Despite his reading of history and up-close observation of the outbreak, Rieux fails—or refuses—to acknowledge the disease for what it is. That is, until an older colleague says to him, “Naturally, you know what this is.” Forced to say the word “plague” aloud, Rieux allows the spreading epidemic to become real for the first time.

[L]ike our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say: "It's too stupid; it can't last long." But though a war may well be "too stupid," that doesn't prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.

Perpetually busy with mercantile projects and ideas about progress, the town, like "humanists," ignores the reappearance of history and believe plagues to belong to the distant past. Camus writes that such people "pass away… first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Whether we are prepared for them or not, plagues and wars will come upon us, aided by the brute force of human idiocy and irrationality. This terrible truth flies in the face of the untethered freedom of Sartrean existentialism. “They fancied themselves free,” Camus’ narrator says of Oran’s townspeople, “and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” The novel proceeds to illustrate just how devastating a deadly epidemic can be to our most cherished notions.

In Camus’ philosophy, “our lives,” the School of Life points out, “are fundamentally on the edge of what he termed ‘the absurd.’” But this “should not lead us to despair pure and simple,” though the feeling may be a stage along the way to “a redemptive tragi-comic perspective.” The recognition of finitude, of failure, ignorance, and repetition—what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”—can instead cure us of the “behaviors Camus abhorred: a hardness of heart, an obsession with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude, a tendency to moralize and judge.” Whatever else The Plague is about, Camus shows that in a struggle for survival, these attitudes can prove worse than useless and can be the first to go.

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Sartre Writes a Tribute to Camus After His Friend-Turned-Rival Dies in a Tragic Car Crash: “There Is an Unbearable Absurdity in His Death”

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

Ingenious Improvised Recreations of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Using Materials Found Around the House

One can only tolerate so many educational videos in self-isolation before the brain begins to rebel.

Hands-on learning. That's what we're craving.

And ultimately, that's what the Getty provides with an addictive challenge to captive audiences on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram to re-create iconic artworks using three household objects.

Participants are encouraged to look at the Getty's downloadable, digitized collection and beyond for a piece that speaks to them, possibly because of their ability to match it by dint of hair color, physique or  perfect prop.)

Certain works quickly emerged as favorites, with Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) the clear front runner.

The Mauritshuis, where Girl with a Pearl Earring is quarantined, along with other Hague-dwellers such as Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and Fabritius' The Goldfinch, describes it thusly:

Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. It is not a portrait, but a ‘tronie’ – a painting of an imaginary figure. Tronies depict a certain type or character; in this case a girl in exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear.

Johannes Vermeer was the master of light. This is shown here in the softness of the girl’s face and the glimmers of light on her moist lips. And of course, the shining pearl.

Let's have a look, shall we?


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Vermeer's extraordinary application of light and shadow is a tall order for most amateurs, but it's wonderful to see how much careful consideration has been given to the original subject's expression, the cant of her head, the arrangement of her garments.

It seems the best way to study a work of art is to become that work of art... especially when one is trapped at home, seeking distraction, and forced to improvise with available objects.

Let us pray we'll be set loose long before Halloween, but also that the challenge takers won't forget how ingenious, easily sourced, and cost-effective their costumes were: a pillowcase, a button, an inverted party dress, the hem of a sibling's blue t-shirt, rescued from the rag bag still smelling faintly of vinegar from pre-coronavirus household cleaning.

That off-the-rack "sexy cat" won't stand a chance.


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No one's disqualified if the number of items used in service of these recreations exceeds the originally stiuplated 3. As long as the participants are having (educational!) fun, this is one of those challenges where everybody wins... especially the baby, the dog, the guy with the mustache and the lady with the turkey on her head, even though the baby and the guy with the mustache forgot their earrings.


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Some tips for participants accompany a handful of memorable entries on the Getty's behind-the-scenes blog, The Iris. We've got links to a number of world class museums' and libraries' digital collections here  and can't wait to see what you come up with.

Meanwhile, enjoy even more recreations by searching for #gettychallenge or having a look at the Instagram of Tussen Kunst & Quarantaine, whose attempt to conjure Girl With A Pearl Earring using a placemat, a towel and a garlic bulb, launched the project that prompted the Getty and the Rijksmuseum to follow suit.

Extra points if you accept the #neckruffchallenge inspired by our history-loving artist friend, Tyler Gunther's take on the #gettychallenge, below.


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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She has been crowdsourcing art in isolation, most recently a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

“It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Michael Stipe Proclaims Again, and He Still Feels Fine

It has taken a viral pandemic, and a mountain of tragic folly and more to come, but the internet has finally delivered the quality content we deserve, at least when it comes to celebrities stuck at home. Nightly bedtime stories read by Dolly Parton? Intimate streamed performances from Neil Young, Ben Gibbard, and many, many others, including stars of Broadway and opera house stages? It can feel a little overwhelming, especially for people working, educating, and doing a hundred other things in quarantine. But if there’s someone I really want to hear from, it’s the guy who told us, thirty-some years ago, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

If you remember the Reagan years, you remember living under the threat of mass extinction by nuclear winter and radiation poisoning. The end of the world seemed imminent at the end of the Cold War. And Michael Stipe, in a manically danceable tune (depending on your level of stamina), proclaimed a need for solitude after issuing his many grievances.

It is still the end of the world, he says in a recent video address about coronavirus on his website (and a shorter version released on social media), and “I do feel fine. I feel okay. The important part of that lyric, that song title, is ‘As We Know It.’ We’re about to go through—we are going through something that none of us have ever encountered before….”

The moment is unique, of worldwide historical significance as was the belligerent arms race of the late eighties, the terrible A.I.D.S. epidemic, and other catastrophic events occurring when R.E.M.  released Document, the 1987 album that introduced millions of young fans to art-punk geniuses Wire—whose “Strange” Stipe and company cover; to bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, who lent their names to two songs; and to Lenny Bruce, pioneering 60s comic, who, like Stipe in the album’s Side One closer, is “not afraid” of earthquakes, birds and snakes, aeroplanes, and other signs of the apocalypse. Things will change irrevocably, and life will probably go on. In the meantime, he says, “don’t mis-serve your own needs.”

You may not be surprised to learn the song re-entered the charts on March 13, 2020, as Polyphonic informs us in their video at the top. “It’s easy to see why.” These days nuclear holocaust seems low on the list of probable causes for the world’s end, what with potential economic collapse and more massive climate events following on COVID-19’s heels. Grim times indeed, as we know them, but they’re hardly the first we’ve faced in living memory. Behind Stipe’s “glib irony” in “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” lies a fierce critique of U.S. greed and violence and, as always, an alternative ethos, one whose call we might especially heed in our days of isolation.

We’re eager to reconnect in myriad ways, but time alone might not be such a bad idea. “Return, listen to yourself churn,” Stipe sings, “listen to your heart beat.” We can hear the final call for solitude as a dig at rugged individualism, or a call to healthy introspection. As the original video suggests, wading through the clutter might help us reclaim the stuff that makes us our best selves. Along with issuing his PSA, Stipe has also released a video, above, of a new demo track, “No Time for Love Like Now.” Here, he ditches the archness and anger of his fiery younger self for a plaintive statement about what the world needs. You guessed it…

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R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” Reworked from Minor to Major Scale

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

Customize Your Zoom Virtual Background with Free Works of Art

Limitations stimulate creativity. While that phrasing is credited to business-management scholar Henry Mintzberg, the idea itself has a long history. We know we work more fruitfully when we work within boundaries, and we've known ever since our capabilities were limited in ways barely imaginable today. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic having temporarily redrawn the boundaries of our lives, many of us have already begun to rediscover our own creativity. Some have even done it on Zoom, the teleconferencing software used by businesses and institutions to keep their meetings and classes going even in a time of social distancing.

Instead of their bedrooms or offices, students and office workers have started appearing in settings like a 1970s disco, the Taj Mahal, and the starship Enterprise. The technology making this possible is the "virtual background," explained in the official Zoom instructional video down below.

Word of the virtual background's possibilities has spread through institutions everywhere. It certainly has at the Getty, whose digital editor Caitlin Shamberg notes that "the Getty’s Open Content program includes over 100,000 images that are free and downloadable. This means they’re also fair game to use as your own custom background."

From the Getty's digital collection Shamberg offers such works suitable for Zoom as Van Gogh's Irises, Turner's Van Tromp, going about to please his Masters, Ships a Sea, getting a Good Wetting, and other canvasses of such reliably pleasing settings as 18th-century Venice and a 16th-century forest with a rabbit. The Verge's Natt Garun recently rounded up a few resources where you can find more promising virtual-background material, from bingo cards to beaches to "pop culture homes" including "Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment from Sex and the City, your favorite Friends lofts, Seinfeld living rooms, and more."

Here at Open Culture, we'll point you to the thirty world-class museums that have put two million works of art online, many of which institutions have made them available for download. In this post appears, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Katsushika Hokusai's Under the Wave off Kanagawa (whose evolution to the status of an iconic ukiyo-e print we've previously covered); from the Getty, an 18th-century room "originally used as a bedroom or large cabinet in a private Parisian home at number 18 place Vendôme"; and from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, George Bellows' The Coming Storm.

That last work, pictured above, has a certain metaphorical resonance with the situation the world now finds itself in, hoping though we are that the storm of COVID-19 is now passing rather than still coming. But while we're sheltering from it — and continuing to carry on business as usual as best we can — we might as well get take every opportunity to get artistic. Find many more artistic images to download here.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

HBO Is Streaming 500 Hours of Shows for Free: The Sopranos, The Wire, and More

We live, one often hears, in a golden age of television. But when did this age begin? Scholars of prestige TV drama — a field that, for both professionals and amateurs, has expanded in recent years — tend to point to The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999. In its eight-year run, David Chase's series about a depressed New Jersey mafia boss, a protagonist analyzed in the Behind the Curtain video essay above, set new standards in its medium for craft and complexity. To understand how much of a departure The Sopranos marked from everything else on television, simply compare it to what was airing on major broadcast networks in the 1990s, most of which now looks unwatchably simplistic and repetitive.

Of course, The Sopranos didn't air on a major broadcast network: it aired on HBO. Originally launched as "Home Box Office" in 1972, the oldest premium cable channel of them all has long since expanded its mandate from airing second-run movies to creating original programming of its own.

Its mid-1990s slogan "It's Not TV. It's HBO" reflects an intent to go beyond what was possible on conventional television networks, an enterprise whose promise The Sopranos signaled to the world. Critics lavished even more praise on The Wire, David Simon's dramatic examination and indictment of American institutions that ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. In the video essay just above, Thomas Flight explains what makes The Wire, whose fans include everyone from Barack Obama to Slavoj Žižek, "one of the most brilliant TV shows ever."

If you haven't seen these or the other acclaimed HBO shows that have done so much to gild this televisual age, now's your chance to catch up. That's true not just for the obvious reason — the threat of the coronavirus pandemic keeping so many shut in at home — but also because HBO will make 500 hours of its programming free to stream on its HBO Now and HBO Go platforms. If you're in the United States or another area served by HBO online, you can watch not just The Sopranos and The Wire in their entirety, but the vampire-themed True Blood, the undertaking-themed Six Feet Under, and such comedic takes on American business and politics as Silicon Valley and Veep, a video essay from The Take on whose "satire in the age of Trump" appears above. Of all the ways we can define HBO-style prestige television, isn't "TV shows good enough to inspire video essays" the most apt? Get started here.

Related Content:

The Wire as Great Victorian Novel

The Wire Breaks Down The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Classic Criticism of America (NSFW)

David Chase Reveals the Philosophical Meaning of The Sopranos' Final Scene

The Nine Minute Sopranos

Watch Curated Playlists of Experimental Videos & Films to Get You Through COVID-19: Miranda July, Jan Švankmajer, Guy Maddin & More

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Join Choir! Choir! Choir! for a Community Singalong in Isolation

I love ya, and I think maybe if we sing together, well, we’d just feel a little bit better. Give it a try, okay? —Neil Diamond

Thus quoth singer-songwriter Neil Diamond on March 23, before launching into his surprisingly sturdy monster hit, "Sweet Caroline," having reworked its lyrics to promote hand-washing and social distancing to help control the spread of COVID-19.

He’s not wrong about the therapeutic benefits of group singing. Ditto the imperative to resist gathering publicly, or even in the homes of extended family and close friends, until this crisis is in the rear view.

Choir! Choir! Choir!, an ongoing community sing that’s attained global renown thanks to its frequent tours, charitable work, and the support of such starry personages as Patti Smith and David Byrne, has had to put the kibosh on live group events. (Check out their 2014 singalong of Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," above, for a taste of the proceedings.)

With everyone staying home, founders Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman quickly implemented a digital work around, inviting fans and first-timers alike to weekly online sing-ins.

Their next Social Distan-Sing-Along is coming up this Saturday, April 4th at 3pm EDT, featuring a campfire-themed playlist:

"The Weight"

"Blowin' In The Wind"

"Our House"

"Leaving On A Jet Plane"

"Redemption Song"

"Talkin Bout A Revolution"

"Dust In The Wind"

"Cats In The Cradle"

"Wild World"

(Sadly, no "Titanic," but perhaps that one’s more summer camp than campfire, and these days, it’s probably best to sidestep any number, no matter how silly, that springs from mass casualties…)

Participants are instructed to print a file of the song lyrics in advance and show up to the digital campfire (live streaming on YouTube or Facebook) with a couple of devicesenough to follow along with Adilman and Goldman, while simultaneously Zooming in any friends you've pre-arranged to sing with.

(With 1000s attending, one of Choir! Choir! Choir!’s usual joyslifting one’s voice with a vast chorus of mostly strangersis a logistical and technological impossibility.)

Participants are also encouraged to share footage of themselves singing along, using the hashtag #NeverStopSingingthough we remind our non-performance-oriented readers that this is merely a suggestion.

Choir! Choir! Choir in isolation may well attract shower Sinatras who’d never dream of opening their mouths at an in-person event.

It’s a golden opportunity for the vocally shy to become part of one of the biggest choirs in history, secure in the knowledge that the only people to hear them croaking away will be the cat, the dog, any human co-inhabitants… and, oh dear, what about neighbors in the immediate vicinity?

Don't worry about the neighbors. In fact, prick up your earsyou may hear them singing the exact same tunes.

Download the lyrics for April 4’s campfire here prior to joining in on YouTube or Facebook. If you miss this one, you’ll have another opportunity the following Saturday, when Choir! Choir! Choir! is hosting a virtual "sing-a-thon" in support of the Canadian Cancer Society Daffodil Campaign.

To get you in the mood, here are some of our favorites from Choir! Choir! Choir!’s classic playlist:

Related Content:

Italians’ Nightly Singalongs Prove That Music Soothes the Savage Beast of Coronavirus Quarantine & Self-Isolation

65,000 Fans Break Into a Singalong of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a Green Day Concert in London’s Hyde Park

Good Medicine: The Band’s Classic Song, “The Weight,” Sung by Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr & Special Guests from Around the World

Patti Smith Sings “People Have the Power” with a Choir of 250 Fellow Singers

Brian Eno Lists the Benefits of Singing: A Long Life, Increased Intelligence, and a Sound Civilization

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Like Choir! Choir! Choir!, she has been crowdsourcing art in isolation, most recently a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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