To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns in the art world, and there are unknown knowns. The Codex Quetzalecatzin, a rare colored Mesoamerican manuscript, recently went from a unknown known (a French collector owned it, and before them William Randolph Hearst, and many others, for several centuries) to a known known (the French collector donated it to the Library of Congress).
Better still, the Library has scanned the illustrated document–essentially a map of Mexico City and Puebla, drawn up for both Spanish colonizers and indigenous people to lay claim to the land–in super hi-res for the public and scholars worldwide to pore over. It dates from between 1570 and 1595.
According to John Hessler of the Library’s Worlds Revealed blog, the map depicts the land owned by the de Leon family.
As is typical for an Aztec, or Nahuatl, codex of this early date, it relates the extent of land ownership and properties of a family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are depicted on the manuscript. With Nahuatl stylized graphics and hieroglyphs, it illustrates the family’s genealogy and their descent from Lord-11 Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480, was the major political leader of the region. It is from him the Codex derives one of its many names.
The map is one of 450 surviving pictorial manuscripts of the Mesoamerican period, and contains natural pigments such as Maya blue and cochineal red (made from insects).
If it wasn’t so tied in to bloody Spanish colonialism, you could say the Codex looks like a video game map, a la Legend of Zelda. But instead it shows a region in transition, between the old order and a new world populated by Catholic churches, and is all the more fascinating.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, Brutalist architecture flourished in North America and Europe (both West and East) and many countries beyond. Made out of raw concrete, Brutalist buildings–usually municipal buildings, campuses, and housing projects–have an almost unfinished look to them. The first and most famous example of this architectural style is the Unité d’habitation, the housing complex built by Le Corbusier in Marseille between 1947 and 1952.
Though Brutalism has since fallen out of fashion, it might be poised for a comeback, especially if this new espresso machine is any indication. After a successful Kickstarter campaign this summer (raising $145k), the Norwegian-Californian design firm Montaag Products is putting the finishing touches on a brutalist espresso maker.
They wanted to design a machine made out of “completely honest materials.” Hence the raw concrete. Inside the espresso maker, however, they’ve used materials typically found inside $1300 Italian machines, according to Food & Wine. You can pre-order the machine at Indiegogo for $799. It should be ready in March (or thereabouts).
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I left much of my reading of C.S. Lewis behind, but one quote of his will stay with me for life: “It is a good rule,” he advised, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” I believe his advice is invaluable for maintaining a balanced perspective and achieving a healthy critical distance from the tumult of the present.
Reading works of ancient writers shows us how alike the mores and the crises of the ancients were to ours, and how vastly different. Those similarities and differences can help us evaluate certain current orthodoxies with greater wisdom. And that’s not to mention countless historians, novelists, poets, playwrights, critics, and philosophers from the past few hundred years, or several decades, who have much to teach us about where our modern ideas came from and how much they’ve deviated from their precedents.
For example, 19th century liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill is now widely admired by conservative and libertarian writers and academics as a proponent of individual economic liberty, the free market, and a flat tax. And they are not wrong, he was all of that, in his early thought. (Mill later supported several socialist causes.) Many of his other political views might be denounced by quite a few as the excesses of campus activist leftism. Adam Gopnik summarizes the Victorian philosopher’s generous slate of positions:
Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals….
Can people to Mill’s left on economics learn something from him? Sure. Can people to his right on nearly everything else learn a thing or two? It’s worth a shot. Mill championed engaging those with whom we disagree (he greatly admired Thomas Carlyle; the two couldn’t have been more different in many respects). He also argued vigorously for “’liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.” Before nodding your head in agreement—read Mill’s arguments. He might not agree with you.
And what did John Stuart Mill read? In Chapter One of his autobiography, Mill gives a detailed account of his classical education from ages 3-7, during which time he read “the whole of Herodotus,” “the first six dialogues of Plato,” “part of Lucian,” all in their original Greek, of course, as any young gentleman of the time would. Mill’s father, Scottish philosopher James Mill, intentionally set out to create a genius with this advanced course of study.
Lapham’s Quarterlyexcerpted the passage, and turned the many books Mill mentions into a list called “Early Education.” You can find all of the titles below, including the ancients mentioned and over two dozen “modern” works (that is, since the time of the Renaissance) Mill read as a child in English, including Cervantes’ mammoth Don Quixote. Most of us will have to make do with translations of the Greek texts, but take heart, even Mill “learnt no Latin until my eighth year.” The list shows not only Mill’s daunting precocity, but also how essential classical texts were to well-educated Europeans of any age.
It also highlights what kinds of texts were valued by Mill’s society, or at least by his father. All of the authors but one are men, all of them are Europeans, most of the works are histories and biographies. Given Mill’s broad views, his own recommended reading list might look different. Nonetheless, Mill’s account of his extraordinary early years gives us a fascinating look at the relative breadth of a liberal education in 19th century Britain. What ancient authors did you read as a young student? Or do you read now, between books, essays, articles, or Twitterstorms du jour?
Xenophon–The Anabasis, Memorials of Socrates, The Cryopadeia
Diogenes Laertius–some of The Lives of Philosophers
Americans have long considered New York City, at least during its relatively inexpensive eras or in its relatively expensive areas, a haven for every type of artist and members of all subcultures. The density of its population, by American standards, also presents its denizens with the opportunity to cross between one artistic or subcultural realm and another with ease — or with geographical ease, anyway. Few New York figures crossed as many such boundaries as creatively in the early 20th century as a Cedar Rapids-born writer and photographer named Carl van Vechten.
“When Van Vechten first arrived in New York, in 1906, there were few signs that he would ever attempt to appoint himself bard of Harlem,” writes Kelefa Sanneh in a New Yorker piece on Van Vechten’s life. “He was a self-consciously sophisticated exile from the Midwest, and he was quickly hired by the Times as a music and dance critic.” In addition, to his criticism, “he also published a series of mischievous novels that were notable mainly, one critic observed, for their ‘annoying mannerisms.'” (The critic? Probably the author himself.) And the longer Van Vechten lived in New York, “the more interested he became in the sights and sounds of Harlem, where raucous and inventive night clubs were thriving under Prohibition.”
The white Van Vechten wrote a novel about black life in Harlem, insisting on a title that I doubt I can even type here. It expressed what Sanneh calls “his conviction that Negro culture was the essence of America,” which went with “his simultaneous fascination with the avant-garde and the broadly popular; and his string of sexual relationships with men, which were an open secret during his life. Van Vechten’s tastes were varied: his bibliography includes an erudite cultural history of the house cat, and in his later decades he became an accomplished portrait photographer.” Black, white, or otherwise, nearly every major figure in the American culture of the day seems to have sat for his camera: actors, writers, musicians, intellectuals, architects, magnates, and many other types besides.
Some of the subjects of Van Vechten’s over 9,000 portraits, all browsable online at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, were his friends: Gertrude Stein, and Langston Hughes, for instance, both of whom expressed great enthusiasm for Van Vechten’s writing on black culture. Others created that black culture, now known as the Harlem Renaissance: Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday, James Baldwin. Others made up the culture of global celebrity, then only in its infancy: Orson Welles, Lotte Leyna, Laurence Olivier.
They, and more so Van Vechten himself, knew that to become an icon in the 20th century, you needed to do much more than excel in the human realm: you had to transcend it, ascending into that of the image. If you sufficiently fascinated Van Vechten, it seems, he was only too glad to help you on your way there. See thousands of his portraits at this Yale website.
Portraits in order of appearance on this page include: Billie Holliday, Orson Welles, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and Dizzy Gillespie. All come courtesy of the Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress.
Do you want to speak more languages? Sure, as Sally Struthers used to say so often, we all do. But the requirements of attaining proficiency in any foreign tongue, no doubt unlike those correspondence courses pitched by that All in the Family star turned daytime TV icon, can seem frustratingly demanding and unclear. But thanks to the research efforts of the Foreign Service Institute, the center of foreign-language training for the United States government for the past 70 years, you can get a sense of how much time it takes, as a native or native-level English speaker, to master any of a host of languages spoken all across the world.
The map above visualizes the languages of Europe (at least those deemed diplomatically important enough to be taught at the FSI), coloring them according the average time commitment they require of an English speaker. In pink, we have the English-speaking countries. The red countries speak Category I languages, those most closely related to English and thus learnable in 575 to 600 hours of study: the traditional high-school foreign languages of Spanish and French, for instance, or the less commonly taught but just about as easily learnable Portuguese and Italian. If you’d like a little more challenge, why not try your hand at German, whose 750 hours of study puts it in Category II — quite literally, a category of its own?
In total, the FSI ranks languages into six categories of difficulty, including English’s Category 0. The higher up the scale you go, the less recognizable the languages might look to an English-speaking monoglot. Category III contains no European languages at all (though it does contain Indonesian, widely regarded as one of the objectively easiest languages to learn). Category IV offers a huge variety of languages from Amharic to Czech to Nepali to Tagalog, each demanding 44 weeks (or 1100 hours) of study. Then, at the very summit of the linguistic mountain, we find the switched-up grammar, highly unfamiliar scripts, and potentially mystifying cultural assumptions of Category V, “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.”
To that most formidable group belong Arabic, Chinese both Mandarin and Cantonese, Korean, and — this with an asterisk meaning “usually more difficult than other languages in the same category” — Japanese. Now if, like me, you consider studying foreign languages one of your main pursuits, you know that possessing a genuine interest in a language — in its mechanics, in its ongoing evolution, in the cultures that created it and the cultures it in turn creates — can do wonders to get you through even the most aggravating difficulties on the long journey to commanding it. Then again, I’m also a native English speaker who chose to move to Korea, where I study not just the Category-V Korean but the Category-V* Japanese through Korean; you might want to take with a grain of salt the words, in any language, of so obvious a masochist.
If you follow the ongoing beef many popular scientists have with philosophy, you’d be forgiven for thinking the two disciplines have nothing to say to each other. That’s a sadly false impression, though they have become almost entirely separate professional institutions. But during the first, say, 200 years of modern science, scientists were “natural philosophers”—often as well versed in logic, metaphysics, or theology as they were in mathematics and taxonomies. And most of them were artists too of one kind or another. Scientists had to learn to draw in order to illustrate their findings before mass-produced photography and computer imaging could do it for them. Many scientists have been fine artists indeed, rivaling the greats, and they’ve made very fine musicians as well.
And then there’s Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, a German biologist and naturalist, philosopher and physician, and proponent of Darwinism who described and named thousands of species, mapped them on a genealogical tree, and “coined several scientific terms commonly known today,” This is Colossal writes, “such as ecology, phylum, and stem cell.” That’s an impressive resume, isn’t it? Oh, and check out his art—his brilliantly colored, elegantly rendered, highly stylized depictions of “far flung flora and fauna,” of microbes and natural patterns, in designs that inspired the Art Nouveau movement. “Each organism Haeckel drew has an almost abstract form,” notes Katherine Schwab at Fast Co. Design, “as if it’s a whimsical fantasy he dreamed up rather than a real creature he examined under a microscope. His drawings of sponges reveal their intensely geometric structure—they look architectural, like feats of engineering.”
Haeckel published 100 fabulous prints beginning in 1889 in a series of ten books called Kunstformen der Natur (“Art Forms in Nature”), collected in two volumes in 1904. The astonishing work was “not just a book of illustrations but also the summation of his view of the world,” one which embraced the new science of Darwinian evolution wholeheartedly, writes scholar Olaf Breidbach in his 2006 Visions of Nature.
Haeckel’s method was a holistic one, in which art, science, and philosophy were complementary approaches to the same subject. He “sought to secure the attention of those with an interest in the beauties of nature,” writes professor of zoology Rainer Willmann in a new book from Taschen called The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, “and to emphasize, through this rare instance of the interplay of science and aesthetics, the proximity of these two realms.”
The gorgeous Taschen book includes 450 of Haeckel’s drawings, watercolors, and sketches, spread across 704 pages, and it’s expensive. But you can see all 100 of Haeckel’s originally published prints in zoomable high-resolution scans here. Or purchase a one-volume reprint of the original Art Forms in Nature, with its 100 glorious prints, through this Dover publication, which describes Haeckel’s art as “having caused the acceptance of Darwinism in Europe…. Today, although no one is greatly interested in Haeckel the biologist-philosopher, his work is increasingly prized for something he himself would probably have considered secondary.” It’s a shame his scientific legacy lies neglected, if that’s so, but it surely lives on through his art, which may be just as needed now to illustrate the wonders of evolutionary biology and the natural world as it was in Haeckel’s time.
Does your child have a musical instrument? That’s good. Taken a few music lessons? Even better. If they’re so inclined, learning music is one of the best things kids can do for their developing brains, whether or not they make a career of the endeavor. But one doesn’t need classical training or jazz chops to make music, or even to become a musician. Those skills have served many an electronic musician, sure, but many others have created moving, complex music with ingenuity, finely-tuned ears, tech smarts, and wildly experimental attitudes.
Then there are electronic artists, like Bruce Haack, Herbie Hancock, and Thomas Dolby, who combined fine musicianship with all of the above qualities and made people stop and wonder, people who were not necessarily fans of electronic music, and who didn’t know very much about it.
None of these artists felt it beneath them to bring their art further down to earth, to the level of the kids who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street. On the contrary, they’re natural educators, with a performer’s instinct for timing and audience and a geek’s instinct for highlighting the coolest technical bits. But leave it to Mister Rogers himself, above, to celebrate the music and the playfulness of synthesized sound in his mild-mannered Cole Porter-ish way, to the accompaniment of a good-old fashioned piano and one of his mother’s signature handknit sweaters, in green.
Above, we have the weird wonky Haack, a musical prodigy who studied at Juilliard, and who loved nothing more than making children’s records with his partner, children’s dancer Esther Nelson, and creating musical instruments from household objects and handwired circuitry that was activated by human touch. Fred Rogers was so taken with Haack’s playfulness that he had the composer and Nelson on a long segment of his show. You may or may not know that Haack’s work was inspired by peyote and that he recorded a rock opera called The Electric Lucifer about a war between heaven and hell, but you’ll probably sense there’s more to him than meets the eye. Rogers and the kids are mesmerized (see Part 2 of the segment here.)
Herbie Hancock’s appearance on Sesame Street operates much more on a get to know you level than the gestalt dance therapy performance art of Haack and Nelson. He jams out; charms future Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali by turning her name into high-pitched chorus of voices; and explains the many functions of his Fairlight CMI, a digital synthesizer born in the same year as the young actress. The technology isn’t nearly as interesting as Haack’s homemade curios, given that every one of the Fairlight functions can be fit into an app these days. The joy lies in watching the kids warm to Hancock and the then-new technology.
When it comes to Thomas Dolby’s appearance on the Jim Henson Company’s The Ghost of Faffner Hall program, we are in the position of the child audience. Dolby, with his peculiar English intensity, plays a mad scientist character who stares into the camera as he demonstrates his collection of synthesizers, analog and digital, for viewers. Dolby’s performance might have been aided by some real kids to play off of, but his “fly in a matchbox” example will easily help you and your young ones understand the basic principles at work in synthesizing sound. These playful tutorials were made for kids in 1968, 83, and 89 respectively, and maybe they can still work magic on young 21st century minds. But, as Fred Rogers says, “grownups like to play too, sure. And if you look and listen carefully through this world, you’ll find lots of things that are playful.” Few grownups have been better authorities on the subject.
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