How an Art Conservator Completely Restores a Damaged Painting: A Short, Meditative Documentary

We here at Open Cul­ture take great plea­sure in soup to nuts doc­u­men­taries of mas­ter crafts­peo­ple at work, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the nar­ra­tion has been left out delib­er­ate­ly.

The med­i­ta­tive effect is more pow­er­ful that way, as is our won­der­ment.

We can always go rab­bit­ing after the tech­ni­cal specs of the trade being plied if we’re not entire­ly sure what we’re see­ing.

For instance, those tiny strands con­ser­va­tion­ist Julian Baum­gart­ner of Baum­gart­ner Fine Art Restora­tion places ever so care­ful­ly across a tear in painter Emma Gag­giot­ti Richards’ unti­tled 38”x29” self por­trait?

A tech­nique known as bridg­ing, where­in a rip is sutured using indi­vid­ual strands of Bel­gian linen and reversible con­ser­va­tion adhe­sive.

(We found that out on Baumgartner’s Insta­gram…)

We also take geeky delight in still life-like pre­sen­ta­tions of tools both spe­cial­ized and shock­ing­ly ordi­nary.

Baumgartner’s include an over-the-counter iron and a pair of orange-han­dled scis­sors, labelled so that no one walks away with them…

And who couldn’t think of alter­na­tive uses for those giant Q‑tips, though watch­ing Richards’ skin tones go from dingy to dewy in just a few mea­sured swabs implies that art con­ser­va­tion is the rea­son they were put on earth.

The conservator’s own painter­ly skills are very much on dis­play as he recre­ates dam­aged areas with filler and con­ser­va­tion qual­i­ty oils.

As he has not­ed else­where:

Just as dif­fi­cult as faces but no less impor­tant is fab­ric. Get­ting the col­or and vol­ume just right is very reward­ing. 

The goal of con­ser­va­tion is that the dam­age no longer affects the image as a whole. So we’re not ter­ri­bly con­cerned with whether under a micro­scope or extreme­ly close exam­i­na­tion the restora­tion is vis­i­ble. If you look close enough all con­ser­va­tion is vis­i­ble. 

Our phi­los­o­phy is to alter the art­work as lit­tle as pos­si­ble with respect to the orig­i­nal inten­tion of the artist.

There is one ques­tion left unmet by film­mak­er Jack Brandt­man’s video por­trait, one that casu­al online research seems unlike­ly to sat­is­fy.

What kind of music does the con­ser­va­tor lis­ten to in the stu­dio? Not that soporif­ic instru­men­tal sound­track, we hope!

Per­haps North­west­ern University’s great lis­ten­er-sup­port­ed, stu­dent run sta­tion, WNUR?

WBEZ, the leg­endary pub­lic radio sta­tio?

Or CHIRP, the lat­est addi­tion to Chicago’s radio pedi­gree?

It’d be a pleas­ant sur­prise to find him pow­er­ing through his dai­ly tasks to the tune of the local rock fea­tured in Brantman’s oth­er Made in Chica­go series entries on forg­ing knives and mak­ing jeans.

We live to have our expec­ta­tions defied!

Fol­low Baum­gart­ner Fine Art Restoration’s Insta­gram here.

via The Kids Should See This

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Restor­ing a 400-Year-Old Paint­ing: A Five-Minute Primer

The Art of Restor­ing Clas­sic Films: Cri­te­ri­on Shows You How It Refreshed Two Hitch­cock Movies

25 Mil­lion Images From 14 Art Insti­tu­tions to Be Dig­i­tized & Put Online In One Huge Schol­ar­ly Archive

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Sep­tem­ber 24 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Books on Barack Obama’s Summer Reading List: Naipaul, Ondaatje & More

Pho­to by Pete Souza via

As the cur­rent pres­i­dent grinds his ax on Twit­ter, the for­mer one reads and reflects. Yes­ter­day, Barack Oba­ma post­ed on Face­book his sum­mer read­ing list, a mix of nov­els, mem­oirs, and instruc­tive non-fic­tion. He writes:

One of my favorite parts of sum­mer is decid­ing what to read when things slow down just a bit, whether it’s on a vaca­tion with fam­i­ly or just a qui­et after­noon. This sum­mer I’ve been absorbed by new nov­els, revis­it­ed an old clas­sic, and reaf­firmed my faith in our abil­i­ty to move for­ward togeth­er when we seek the truth. Here’s what I’ve been read­ing:

Tara Westover’s Edu­cat­ed is a remark­able mem­oir of a young woman raised in a sur­vival­ist fam­i­ly in Ida­ho who strives for edu­ca­tion while still show­ing great under­stand­ing and love for the world she leaves behind.

Set after WWII, Warlight by Michael Ondaat­je is a med­i­ta­tion on the lin­ger­ing effects of war on fam­i­ly.

With the recent pass­ing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread A House for Mr Biswas, the Nobel Prize win­ner’s first great nov­el about grow­ing up in Trinidad and the chal­lenge of post-colo­nial iden­ti­ty.

An Amer­i­can Mar­riage by Tayari Jones is a mov­ing por­tray­al of the effects of a wrong­ful con­vic­tion on a young African-Amer­i­can cou­ple.

Fact­ful­ness by Hans Rosling, an out­stand­ing inter­na­tion­al pub­lic health expert, is a hope­ful book about the poten­tial for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inher­ent bias­es.

POTUS’ pre­vi­ous lists of rec­om­mend­ed books can be found in the Relat­eds below.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Barack Oba­ma Shares a List of Enlight­en­ing Books Worth Read­ing

The 5 Books on Pres­i­dent Obama’s 2016 Sum­mer Read­ing List

A Free POTUS Sum­mer Playlist: Pres. Oba­ma Curates 39 Songs for a Sum­mer Day

Hundreds of Classical Sculptures from the Uffizi Gallery Now Digitized & Put Online: Explore a Collection of 3D Interactive Scans

As the mighty House of Medici amassed works of art between the 15th and 18th cen­turies, could its mem­bers have imag­ined that we would still be enjoy­ing their col­lec­tion in the 21st? Per­haps they did, giv­en the ten­den­cy — some­times fatal — of busi­ness and polit­i­cal dynas­ties to imag­ine them­selves as eter­nal. But the Medicis could scarce­ly have imag­ined how peo­ple all around the world have just gained access to the sculp­ture they col­lect­ed, now dis­played at Flo­rence’s Uffizi Gallery and else­where, through the Uffizi Dig­i­ti­za­tion Project.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion between Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty’s Vir­tu­al World Her­itage Lab­o­ra­to­ry, the Politec­ni­co di Milano, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flo­rence, the five-year project, which began in 2016, has as its goal the com­plete dig­i­ti­za­tion of Greek and Roman sculp­ture in the Uffizi Gallery, Pit­ti Palace, and Boboli Gar­dens. Though not yet fin­ished, it has already man­aged to dig­i­tize more works of clas­si­cal sculp­ture than any oth­er effort by a sin­gle muse­um, and at its site you can take a look at every com­plete piece and frag­ment already dig­i­tized — and not just a look, as you’d get while pass­ing by on a walk through a muse­um, but a clos­er and more detailed look than you may ever have thought pos­si­ble.

“The gen­uine­ly easy-to-nav­i­gate web­site proves more inter­ac­tive than many com­put­er­ized muse­um archives,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Jas­mine Weber. “Users are giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to trav­el inside tombs and inside every nook of the fig­ures’ con­struc­tion. The inter­face allows users to trav­el around and with­in the sculp­tures, get­ting clos­er than vis­i­tors often can in the muse­um space itself thanks to three-dimen­sion­al ren­der­ing from every imag­in­able angle.” The col­lec­tion, notes the Uffizzi Dig­i­ti­za­tion Pro­jec­t’s about page, con­tains “works of excep­tion­al inter­est to stu­dents of Greek and Roman art, notably the Medici Venus, the Medici Faun, the Nio­bids, and the Ari­adne.”

The Uffizi Dig­i­ti­za­tion Project has so far made more than 300 works avail­able to view as 3D mod­els, and you can find them by either search­ing the col­lec­tion or scrolling down to browse by cat­e­go­ry, a list that includes every­thing from altars and busts to stat­uettes and vas­es. And though no more tech­no­log­i­cal­ly impres­sive col­lec­tion of vir­tu­al clas­si­cal sculp­ture may exist on the inter­net, after expe­ri­enc­ing it you might nev­er­the­less feel the need to see these pieces in an envi­ron­ment oth­er than the black dig­i­tal void. If so, have a look at the vir­tu­al tour of the Uffizi Gallery we fea­tured ear­li­er this year here on Open Cul­ture. But be pre­pared: from there you may want to book a tick­et to Flo­rence and see the sculp­ture col­lect­ed by the House of Medici in the very city where it rose to such vast eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al pow­er.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of The Uffizi Gallery in Flo­rence, the World-Famous Col­lec­tion of Renais­sance Art

3D Scans of 7,500 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Down­load & 3D Print Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Artists Put Online 3D, High Res­o­lu­tion Scans of 3,000-Year-Old Nefer­ti­ti Bust (and Con­tro­ver­sy Ensues)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities 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.

Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Perfect Performance in The Blues Brothers, the Film That Reinvigorated Her Career (1980)

There are many films of the 70s and 80s that could nev­er get made today. This is not your grumpy uncle’s rant about polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone wild. In many cas­es, it’s very much for the best. (And did we ever need “movies” like Porky’s or Hard­bod­ies in the first place? I’m going to say no.) Styles and social mores change. Actors and direc­tors who alone could have pulled off what they did, when they did, pass away. And so too do musi­cians whose equal we will nev­er see again. When these inim­itable forces come togeth­er, it’s once-in-a-life­time cel­lu­loid mag­ic. Remakes and ill-advised sequels seem like sac­ri­lege.

I am speak­ing on this occa­sion of The Blues Broth­ers, the 1980 musi­cal com­e­dy that brought togeth­er a pan­theon of leg­ends now most­ly depart­ed for that hall of fame in the sky. John Belushi, of course, but also John Can­dy and Car­rie Fish­er. James Brown, Cab Cal­loway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hook­er… and Aretha Franklin, whom the whole world now mourns. Charges of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion might get lobbed at The Blues Broth­ers, but they would be mis­placed. For all its absur­dist slap­stick, the film was noth­ing if not a cel­e­bra­tion of black Amer­i­can music, a rev­er­ent, lov­ing trib­ute to the blues, R&B, and clas­sic soul that went direct­ly to the source, and in so doing, rein­vig­o­rat­ed Aretha’s flag­ging career.

The music scene of the late sev­en­ties had “turned away from soul and toward dis­co,” writes Lau­ra Bradley at Van­i­ty Fair. “Franklin was strug­gling to make the tran­si­tion, espe­cial­ly after Atlantic allowed her con­tract to expire.” Her attempt to keep up in the 1979 dis­co album La Diva had flopped. She was the Queen of Soul, not sweaty dance­floors, and so she would remain, thanks in part to the antics of Jake and Elwood and writer/director John Lan­dis, who cast her as Mrs. Mur­phy, a din­er wait­ress who gets to call the broth­ers “two honkys dressed like Hasidic dia­mond mer­chants” who “look like they’re from the CIA.”

The sto­ry of her cast­ing is bit­ter­sweet. “You have to remem­ber that in 1979,” says Lan­dis, “rhythm and blues was basi­cal­ly over, and the num­ber one music in the world was Abba, the Bee Gees… when peo­ple ask, how did you get the likes of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, it was easy. We just called them and said, ‘Wan­na job?’” Stu­dio exec­u­tives balked, want­i­ng hip­per acts like Rose Royce, who had sung the theme from Car Wash. It would have been a tragedy.

Thank­ful­ly, Lan­dis persisted—he had writ­ten the part for her. “Every­one in the movie,” he says in a recent inter­view, “the parts were writ­ten specif­i­cal­ly for them.” (Except James Brown, who took over as the preach­er when Lit­tle Richard “found Jesus, again,” and went to back to his church in Ten­nessee.) Lan­dis also insist­ed on Aretha singing “Think,” a song from her 1968 album Aretha Now, instead of her biggest hit. (“Real­ly?” he recalls her say­ing, “Don’t you want me to sing ‘Respect’?”) The song came direct­ly out of the dia­logue between her and blues gui­tarist Matt Mur­phy, play­ing her hus­band.

Lan­dis remem­bers Aretha’s re-record­ing of the extend­ed film ver­sion of the song:

So, we laid down the tracks for “Think.” She came in, a cou­ple days before she was to be shot. She lis­tened to the track once and said, “OK, but I would like to replace the piano.” We said, great, what do you want to do? She said, “I’ll play.”

So we got a piano, she sat in a record­ing stu­dio, and it was Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios’ record­ing stu­dios in Chica­go, a very old, funky stu­dio we were delight­ed to be in because it was where Chess Records did all their record­ings. We had a piano for her. She sat with her back to us, at the keys, and the piano and her voice was mic’d. She did it once, lis­tened to the play­back. She said, “I’d like to do it again.” She played piano as she sang, and the sec­ond take is the one in the movie. She was just won­der­ful. She didn’t like doing so many takes and she had issues with lip-sync­ing.

Franklin also thought of the expe­ri­ence fond­ly, writ­ing in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy that it was “some­thing I enjoyed mak­ing tremen­dous­ly.” She did final­ly get the chance to sing “Respect” in a Blues Broth­ers film, almost twen­ty years lat­er, when she reprised her role in Blues Broth­ers 2000. It’s arguable whether that movie ever should have been made. But there’s nev­er any argu­ing with Aretha Franklin’s com­mand­ing voice. See her tell off Mur­phy and Elwood Blues, again, in a clip from the belat­ed sequel below. Queen Aretha may have left us, but her lega­cy will live for­ev­er.

via Van­i­ty Fair

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aretha Franklin’s Most Pow­er­ful Ear­ly Per­for­mances: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Lit­tle Prayer” & More

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd Get Bri­an Wil­son Out of Bed and Force Him to Go Surf­ing, 1976

The Night John Belushi Cart­wheeled Onstage Dur­ing a Grate­ful Dead Show & Sang “U.S. Blues” with the Band (1980)

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

David Bowie’s “Heroes” Delightfully Performed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Cov­er tunes are not trib­ute bands. The best cov­ers don’t aim to be car­bon copies. They expand our con­cept of the orig­i­nal with an unex­pect­ed ele­ment or fresh lens.

Would you believe me if I told you that the Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain’s take on David Bowie’s “Heroes”—the sec­ond most cov­ered tune in the late rocker’s canon—is even sex­i­er than the orig­i­nal?



Noth­ing ever will be.

It is, how­ev­er, a com­pelling case for the pow­er of mul­ti­ple ukule­les.

A sin­gle uke could only be dwarfed by the mem­o­ry of “Heroes”’ dri­ving, famous­ly lay­ered sound, a group effort that includ­ed pro­duc­er Tony Vis­con­ti and gui­tarist Robert Fripp.

Bowie may have referred to the tem­po and rhythm as “plod­ding,” but co-writer Bri­an Eno’s descrip­tion of the sound as some­thing “grand and hero­ic” comes much clos­er to the mark.

Are eight ukes grand and hero­ic? Well, no. Not real­ly.

And there is some­thing unde­ni­ably humor­ous about a row of for­mal­ly attired, seat­ed, mid­dle-aged men and women, wail­ing away in uni­son with their right hands, but it’s telling that the audi­ence at New York’s mul­ti­me­dia art cabaret (le) Pois­son Rouge isn’t laugh­ing.

Admit­ted­ly, there were a few iso­lat­ed chuck­les in the begin­ning, a few notes in.


Prob­a­bly been dragged there on blind dates with ukulele-enthu­si­asts.

To be char­i­ta­ble, there will always be those in need of con­vinc­ing that the ukulele is a legit­i­mate instru­ment.

Who bet­ter to con­vince them than the Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain, whose very name sug­gests that its mem­bers are in on the joke, and capa­ble of turn­ing it on its head?

The lyrics, as most Bowie fans can tell you, were inspired by real life, but not exact­ly Bowie’s. The tune was on sol­id foot­ing, but the words were still slow to come, when Bowie glanced out the win­dow of his Berlin record­ing stu­dio to catch a back up singer and Vis­con­ti, mar­ried at the time, enjoy­ing what they believed was a stolen kiss.

The rest, as they say is his­to­ry, kept some­what shroud­ed in mys­tery until rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly.

The Ukulele Orches­tra singers wise­ly steer clear of Bowie’s howl­ing, emo­tion­al deliv­ery, which Vis­con­ti got on tape almost before the ink on those lyrics had time to dry.

Instead, they hon­or him, and the place this song has in so many people’s hearts, with their sin­cer­i­ty.

Lis­ten to the Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain’s take on Bowie’s Life on Mars here.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain Per­forms Stun­ning Cov­ers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” Talk­ing Heads’ “Psy­cho Killer” & More

Pro­duc­er Tony Vis­con­ti Breaks Down the Mak­ing of David Bowie’s Clas­sic “Heroes,” Track by Track

George Har­ri­son Explains Why Every­one Should Play the Ukulele

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Sep­tem­ber 24 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

See the First Ever Video of Elvis Costello Performing, Summer 1974

The set­ting: Lon­don. In par­tic­u­lar, Step­ney, Lon­don E1. The year, a warm sum­mer in 1974, July 21 to be exact. And a very ear­ly video cam­era, only able to shoot in black and white, records the events of the E1 Fes­ti­val, a free day out for fam­i­lies, rest­less teens, and bell bot­tomed, long-haired youth enjoy­ing the sun. There’s Indi­an musi­cians, face paint­ing, car­ni­val games, jazz bands, folk danc­ing, and a “Wellie Boot Chuck­ing Com­pe­ti­tion”. You know, “the lot,” as the Eng­lish would say. But then, around 40 min­utes in, the video­g­ra­ph­er decides to shoot the pub rock band play­ing on the main stage.

If the bespec­ta­cled 19 year old looks and sounds a bit famil­iar, well luvvies, you’re not see­ing things. This is the first filmed appear­ance of a young Elvis Costel­lo, beclad in very fetch­ing dun­ga­rees and fronting his first band Flip City. This was their third ever gig, accord­ing to the Elvis Costel­lo fan site.

A full three years before Declan Mac­Manus would change his name and burst upon the scene with My Aim Is True, here he is pay­ing his dues.

Flip City was Costello’s sec­ond group, the first being a folk rock duo called Rusty that played John Prine, Jesse Win­ches­ter, and Van Mor­ri­son cov­ers in between their own songs. After Costel­lo split from Liv­er­pool and left for Lon­don, he jumped on the pub rock band­wag­on that was already formed around Nick Lowe, Dr. Feel­go­od, and Brins­ley Schwarz, mix­ing up Amer­i­cana and R’n’B cov­ers with very British orig­i­nals. They even record­ed demos a few years after this gig, which were wide­ly boot­legged until most of them appeared on bonus tracks on var­i­ous CD reis­sues. (You can lis­ten to them here.)

But back to 1974. We have no record of their full set, but the two songs on the video are from the Coast­ers’ “I’m a Hog for You” (the B‑side of “Char­lie Brown” but cov­ered by Scream­ing Lord Sutch in 1963) and from the Isley Broth­ers, “This Old Heart of Mine,” a Motown sta­ple. Despite Costello’s ency­clo­pe­di­ac knowl­edge of music, he nev­er again played these two songs live again.

It might be 20/20 hind­sight, but one can already hear the tal­ent and the con­fi­dence (or at least mock con­fi­dence) that would soon pro­pel the young man into the charts. The rest, as they say, is much bet­ter than win­ning the wellie chuck­ing con­test.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Wave Music–DEVO, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello–Gets Intro­duced to Amer­i­ca by ABC’s TV Show, 20/20 (1979)

The Stunt That Got Elvis Costel­lo Banned From Sat­ur­day Night Live (1977)

Elvis Costel­lo Sings “Pen­ny Lane” for Sir Paul McCart­ney at The White House

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 and/or watch his films here.

Bauhaus Ballet: A Dance of Geometry

Dur­ing the past month, the Great Big Sto­ry has released a series of videos that revis­it the design aes­thet­ic of the Bauhaus move­ment. Their first video explored the rad­i­cal build­ings designed by Bauhaus archi­tects. A sec­ond focused on the lega­cy of min­i­mal­ist Bauhaus fur­ni­ture. And now a third takes as its sub­ject Oskar Schlem­mer’s 1922 “Tri­adic Ballet”–a bal­let famous for putting geom­e­try and struc­ture into dance. The video above shows the “Bay­erisches Junior Bal­let München as they pre­pare to bring Bauhaus cen­ter stage again.” You can watch a full recre­ation of the bal­let and learn much more about Schlem­mer’s exper­i­men­tal pro­duc­tion by read­ing this post from our archive.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Bal­let in Bril­liant Col­or, the Tri­adic Bal­let, First Staged by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922.

An Oral His­to­ry of the Bauhaus: Hear Rare Inter­views (in Eng­lish) with Wal­ter Gropius, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe & More

Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books & Jour­nals for Free: Gropius, Klee, Kandin­sky, Moholy-Nagy & More

32,000+ Bauhaus Art Objects Made Avail­able Online by Har­vard Muse­um Web­site

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

How Aleister Crowley, the Infamous Occultist, Led the First Attempt to Reach the Summit of K2 (1902)

It sounds like the plot of a Wern­er Her­zog film: Aleis­ter Crow­ley, heir to a brew­ing for­tune and “flam­boy­ant, bisex­u­al drug fiend with a fas­ci­na­tion for the occult,” meets “son of a well-known Jew­ish Social­ist” Oscar Eck­en­stein, “a chemist turned rail­way engi­neer.” The two strike up a friend­ship over their mutu­al pas­sion for moun­taineer­ing, and, in four years time, co-lead an expe­di­tion to reach the sum­mit of K2, the sec­ond high­est moun­tain in the world.

The descrip­tions of these char­ac­ters come from Mick Conefrey’s The Ghosts of K2: The Race for the Sum­mit of the World’s Most Dead­ly Moun­tain, a book detail­ing the many gru­el­ing attempts, many deaths, and few suc­cess­es, in over a cen­tu­ry of climbs to the mountain’s peak. Crow­ley and Eckenstein’s expe­di­tion, under­tak­en in 1902, was the first. Though unsuc­cess­ful, their effort remains a leg­endary feat of his­tor­i­cal brav­ery, or hubris, or insanity—an ascent up the face of what climber George Bell called “a sav­age moun­tain that tries to kill you.”

In an inter­view with Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, Cone­frey sums up the doomed expe­di­tion:

 In those days, nobody had a clue about what it was going to be like. They thought they would go to the Himalayas and knock off K2 in a cou­ple of days. But as the expe­di­tion pro­ceed­ed, it start­ed falling apart. Eck­en­stein, the leader, had a bad res­pi­ra­to­ry infec­tion. Crow­ley had malar­ia and spent most of the time in his tent with a high fever. At one point he got so deliri­ous, he start­ed wav­ing his revolver at oth­er mem­bers of the team. 

There are many oth­er Her­zo­gian touch­es. In his book Fall­en Giants, Mau­rice Isser­man describes the team—also con­sist­ing of a novice Eng­lish­man, a Swiss doc­tor, and two expe­ri­enced Aus­tri­an climbers—as “unrea­son­ably bur­dened by three tons of lug­gage.” Some of that unnec­es­sary bur­den came from a “sev­er­al-vol­ume library” Crow­ley “intend­ed to haul onto the glac­i­er.” The oth­ers “object­ed to the super­flu­ous weight, but Crow­ley had read enough Joseph Con­rad to know what hap­pened to those who let go of their hold on civ­i­liza­tion in the wild.” The library stayed, and a train of 200 porters hauled the team’s lug­gage to Bal­toro Glac­i­er. (See Crow­ley in a pho­to from the expe­di­tion above, pre­sum­ably strick­en with malar­ia.)

Pri­or to set­ting off for K2 Eck­en­stein and Crow­ley had climbed vol­ca­noes in Mex­i­co, then the lat­ter had trav­eled to San Fran­cis­co, Hawaii, Japan, Sri Lan­ka, and India—along the way hav­ing affairs, learn­ing med­i­ta­tion, and devel­op­ing a “life­long devo­tion to Shi­va, the Hin­du god of destruc­tion.” While it takes a cer­tain rare per­son­al­i­ty to sub­ject them­selves to the rig­ors of scal­ing a moun­tain almost five miles high, Crowley—notorious for his “mag­ick,” sex­u­al adven­tures, drug use, lewd poet­ry, and found­ing of a reli­gious order—is arguably the most out-there per­son­al­i­ty in the his­to­ry of a very extreme sport.

But moun­taineer­ing “is not a nor­mal pur­suit,” writes Scot­tish climber Robin Camp­bell, “and we should not be too sur­prised to find its adepts show­ing odd behav­ior in oth­er spheres of life.” Like all devo­tees of stren­u­ous, death-defy­ing pur­suits, Crow­ley “want­ed extreme expe­ri­ences,” says Cone­frey, “where he pushed him­self to the lim­it.” It just so hap­pened that he want­ed to push far beyond the nat­ur­al and human worlds. After the failed K2 attempt, he would only make one more dar­ing expe­di­tion with Eck­en­stein, in 1905, a climb up the Himalayan moun­tain of Kangchen­jun­ga, the third high­est moun­tain in the world.

On the trip, Crow­ley, the leader, report­ed­ly treat­ed the local porters with bru­tal arro­gance, and when three of them were killed along with one of the expe­di­tion mem­bers, he refused to help, writ­ing to a Dar­jeel­ing news­pa­per, “a moun­tain ‘acci­dent’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sym­pa­thy what­ev­er.” He left the fol­low­ing day and gave up moun­taineer­ing, devot­ing the rest of his life to his occult inter­ests and the exploits that earned him the tabloid rep­u­ta­tion as “the wickedest man in the world.”

K2 was final­ly con­quered by two Ital­ian climbers in 1954, who reached the sum­mit, frost­bit­ten and half-mad, as Joan­na Kaven­na puts it in a review of Cone­frey’s spell­bind­ing book, “in a moment of sub­lime anti­cli­max.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­re­al Paint­ings of the Occult Magi­cian, Writer & Moun­taineer, Aleis­ter Crow­ley

Aleis­ter Crow­ley: The Wickedest Man in the World Doc­u­ments the Life of the Bizarre Occultist, Poet & Moun­taineer

Aleis­ter Crow­ley & William But­ler Yeats Get into an Occult Bat­tle, Pit­ting White Mag­ic Against Black Mag­ic (1900)

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

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.