How to Paint Like Yayoi Kusama, the Avant-Garde Japanese Artist

When Yay­oi Kusama first arrived in New York, in the late nine­teen-fifties, she must have sensed that she was in a prac­ti­cal­ly ide­al time and place to make abstract art. That would explain why she sub­se­quent­ly began cre­at­ing a series of large paint­ings we now know as Infin­i­ty Nets, all of which con­sist sole­ly of pat­terns of pol­ka dots — or at least what look like pat­terns, and what look like pol­ka dots, when viewed from a dis­tance. Up close, there’s some­thing quite dif­fer­ent going on, some­thing alto­geth­er more organ­ic, irreg­u­lar, and ever-shift­ing. and the best method of under­stand­ing it is to pick up a brush and paint an infin­i­ty net of your own.

You can learn how to do that by watch­ing the video above, which comes from Cours­era and the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s online course “In the Stu­dio: Post­war Abstract Paint­ing.” In it, painter Corey D’Au­gus­tine goes through all the steps of exe­cut­ing a fin­ished can­vas in the style of Kusama’s Infin­i­ty Nets, which requires lit­tle con­ven­tion­al tech­ni­cal skill, but a great deal of patience.

D’Au­gus­tine sug­gests that you “lose your­self in the ser­i­al activ­i­ty” of paint­ing all these tiny shapes “as a way to qui­et the mind.” Get deep enough into it, and “you won’t be think­ing about your job or your chil­dren or what­ev­er it is, what­ev­er kind of stress­es you have on your mind nor­mal­ly.

This ther­a­peu­tic view isn’t a mil­lion miles from what Kusama has said of her own moti­va­tions for cre­at­ing art. Even before launch­ing into the Infin­i­ty Nets prop­er, she was paint­ing pol­ka-dot fields out of inspi­ra­tion giv­en to her by the hal­lu­ci­na­tions she’d been suf­fer­ing since the age of ten. Now, at the age of 94, she’s long been a world-renowned artist, one who vol­un­tar­i­ly resides at a men­tal-health facil­i­ty when not at work in her stu­dio fur­ther explor­ing the very same visu­al con­cepts with which she began. You can learn more about Kusama’s life from the mate­r­i­al we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, and if you want to go all the way into her world, there’s always her auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Infin­i­ty Net.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Yay­oi Kusama, Obsessed with Pol­ka Dots, Became One of the Most Rad­i­cal Artists of All Time

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

New Hilma af Klint Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Life & Art of the Trail­blaz­ing Abstract Artist

Japan­ese Com­put­er Artist Makes “Dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans” in 1964: When Giant Main­frame Com­put­ers Were First Used to Cre­ate Art

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

Steve Mar­tin on How to Look at Abstract Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

Wes Anderson Re-Creates The Truman Show, Armageddon & Out of Sight as Stage Plays Performed by the Cast of Rushmore (1999)

Nom­i­nees of the 1999 MTV Movie Awards includ­ed Adam San­dler, Liv Tyler, Chris Tuck­er, and Jen­nifer Love Hewitt to men­tion just a few of the names in a ver­i­ta­ble who’s-who of turn-of-the-mil­len­ni­um Amer­i­can pop cul­ture. But for the teenage cinephiles watch­ing that night, the high­light of the broad­cast was sure­ly a set of brief skits per­formed by “the Max Fis­ch­er Play­ers.” Direct­ed by Wes Ander­son, who had been named Best New Film­mak­er dur­ing the cer­e­mo­ny of three years before, they present low-bud­get but high-spir­it­ed inter­pre­ta­tions of three of the motion pic­tures up for hon­ors: Out of Sight, The Tru­man Show, and Armaged­don.

Hav­ing been a teenage cinephile myself at the time, I can tell you that none of those movies made as much an impact on me as Ander­son­’s own Rush­more, which intro­duced the hyper-ambi­tious young slack­er Max Fis­ch­er to the world. In it, Max and his play­ers adapt Sid­ney Lumet’s Ser­pico, and lat­er put on an elab­o­rate (and explo­sive) pas­tiche of var­i­ous Viet­nam War pic­tures.

Twen­ty-five years ago, few of us had iden­ti­fied in the painstak­ing­ly ram­shackle look and feel of these pro­duc­tions the seed of what would grow into Ander­son­’s sig­na­ture aes­thet­ic. But it was clear that, if the Max Fis­ch­er Play­ers method were applied to the Hol­ly­wood block­busters of the day, amus­ing incon­gruity would result.

These skits promi­nent­ly fea­ture Mason Gam­ble and Sara Tana­ka, both of whom retired from act­ing a few years after giv­ing their mem­o­rable per­for­mances in Rush­more. But Jason Schwartz­man, who will no doubt for­ev­er be iden­ti­fied with Max Fis­ch­er, has remained an active mem­ber of Ander­son­’s own group of play­ers, and even plays a star­ring role once again in Ander­son­’s new film Aster­oid City, which comes out this sum­mer. The Max Fish­er Play­ers’ par­o­dies were includ­ed on the DVD of Rush­more released by the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion — an hon­or still denied, one might add, to the recip­i­ent of the 1999 MTV Movie Award for Best Movie, There’s Some­thing About Mary. (But not to Armaged­don, which just goes to show how unpre­dictable the favor of cinephil­ia can be.)

via Red­dit

Relat­ed con­tent:

Wes Anderson’s Break­through Film Rush­more Revis­it­ed in Five Video Essays: It Came Out 20 Years Ago Today

Wes Ander­son Explains How He Writes and Directs Movies, and What Goes Into His Dis­tinc­tive Film­mak­ing Style

Wes Anderson’s Shorts Films & Com­mer­cials: A Playlist of 8 Short Ander­son­ian Works

Wes Ander­son Goes Sci-Fi in 1950s Amer­i­ca: Watch the Trail­er for His New Film Aster­oid City

Why Do Wes Ander­son Movies Look Like That?

Watch the First Two Hours of MTV’s Inau­gur­al Broad­cast (August 1, 1981)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

An Introduction to the Painting That Changed Georgia O’Keeffe’s Career: Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills

Pub­lic recog­ni­tion is an all too rare reward for many artists, but it car­ries with it a risk of being wide­ly mis­un­der­stood.

Geor­gia O’Ke­effe gained renown for her large-scale flower paint­ings in the 1920s, sell­ing six images of calla lilies for $25,000.

Her hus­band Alfred Stieglitz, an influ­en­tial pho­tog­ra­ph­er and gallery own­er 24 years her senior, cre­at­ed a sen­sa­tion when he exhib­it­ed these flo­ral images along­side his sen­su­ous nude por­traits of her, foment­ing an erot­ic asso­ci­a­tion that has been near impos­si­ble to shake.

O’Keefe main­tained that the close-up flower views were abstrac­tions, sim­i­lar in spir­it to the mod­ernist pho­tographs of her hus­band’s con­tem­po­raries Edward West­on and Paul Strand, but as art his­to­ri­an Ran­dall C. Grif­fin points out, Stieglitz was inclined to see things dif­fer­ent­ly.

Stieglitz and his cir­cle belonged to a tra­di­tion that used themes of sex­u­al­i­ty in their art as a dec­la­ra­tion of being avant-garde. Stieglitz read vir­tu­al­ly all of Freud’s books, as well as Have­lock Ellis’s six-vol­ume Stud­ies in the Psy­chol­o­gy of Sex, which argues that art is dri­ven by sex­u­al ener­gy. Thus, for Stieglitz, sex was a lib­er­at­ing source of cre­ativ­i­ty. O’Keeffe may or may not have thought of Freud when she paint­ed her flow­ers, but the psychologist’s writ­ings were a cul­tur­al touch­stone at the time, with his ideas wide­ly known in a sim­pli­fied fash­ion.

Cura­tor James Payne, cre­ator of the Great Art Explained web series, brings this con­text to his exam­i­na­tion of O’Keeffe’s 1935 paint­ing Ram’s Head, White Hol­ly­hock-Hills.

By the time she began work on it, O’Keeffe had forged a deep, spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion to the New Mex­i­can desert. Its alien land­scape offered respite from Stieglitz’s extra-mar­i­tal affairs and the men­tal health issues that had plagued her in New York.

The South­west pro­vid­ed abun­dant fresh sub­ject mat­ter. She drove her Ford Mod­el A for miles across the desert, stop­ping to col­lect the bleached bones of ani­mals who had per­ished under drought con­di­tions. Unlike Farm Secu­ri­ty Agency pho­tog­ra­phers such as Arthur Roth­stein, O’Keeffe was not inter­est­ed in using these bones to doc­u­ment the cat­a­stro­phe of the Dust Bowl, or even to med­i­tate on mor­tal­i­ty:

The bones do not sym­bol­ize death to me. They are shapes that I enjoy. It nev­er occurs to me that they have any­thing to do with death. They’re very lively.…They please me, and I have enjoyed them very much in rela­tion to the sky.


Cow’s Skull with Cal­i­co Ros­es is a love­ly still life, a study in white. The same skull shows up trans­posed (in Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue) against a red, white, and blue back­ground.

“I’ll tell you what went on in my so-called mind when I did my paint­ings of ani­mal skulls” she told the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins in a 1974 inter­view:

There was a lot of talk in New York then—during the late twen­ties and ear­ly thirties—about the Great Amer­i­can Paint­ing. It was like the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el. Peo­ple want­ed to ‘do’ the Amer­i­can scene. I had gone back and forth across the coun­try sev­er­al times by then, and some of the cur­rent ideas about the Amer­i­can scene struck me as pret­ty ridicu­lous. To them, the Amer­i­can scene was a dilap­i­dat­ed house with a bro­ken-down buck­board out front and a horse that looked like a skele­ton. I knew Amer­i­ca was very rich, very lush. Well, I start­ed paint­ing my skulls about this time. First, I put a horse’s skull against a blue-cloth back­ground, and then I used a cow’s skull. I had lived in the cat­tle country—Amarillo was the cross­roads of cat­tle ship­ping, and you could see the cat­tle com­ing in across the range for days at a time. For good­ness’ sake, I thought, the peo­ple who talk about the Amer­i­can scene don’t know any­thing about it. So, in a way, that cow’s skull was my joke on the Amer­i­can scene, and it gave me plea­sure to make it in red, white, and blue.

Ram’s Head, White Hol­ly­hock-Hills presents a more nuanced vision than Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, and rep­re­sents a turn­ing point in O’Ke­ef­fe’s art.

As Payne observes, the dark clouds gath­ered above the red hills vis­i­ble from her desert ranch promise a much longed-for rain.

The hol­ly­hock she plucked from her gar­den is a sym­bol of rebirth and fer­til­i­ty.

Their float­ing place­ment has drawn com­par­isons to Sur­re­al­ism, but O’Keefe assert­ed that the com­po­si­tion “just sort of grew togeth­er”, telling art his­to­ri­an Kather­ine Kuh, “I was in the sur­re­al­ist show when I’d nev­er heard of sur­re­al­ism. I’m not a join­er.”

Ram’s Head, White Hol­ly­hock-Hills met with acclaim when it was shown at Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in 1936. The New York­er hailed it as one of O’Keeffe’s most bril­liant paint­ings in form and exe­cu­tion, and Stieglitz’s friend, painter Mars­den Hart­ley, might well have intu­it­ed some­thing about the direc­tion O’Keeffe was head­ing in when he described the image as “a trans­fig­u­ra­tion:”

…as if the bone, divest­ed of its phys­i­cal usages—had sud­den­ly learned of its own eso­teric sig­nif­i­cance, had dis­cov­ered the mean­ing of its own inte­gra­tion through the process­es of dis­in­te­gra­tion, ascend­ing to the sphere of its own real­i­ty, in the pres­ence of skies that are not trou­bled, being accus­tomed to supe­ri­or spectacles—and of hills that are ready to receive.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Explore 1,100 Works of Art by Geor­gia O’Keeffe: They’re Now Dig­i­tized and Free to View Online

The Real Geor­gia O’Keeffe: The Artist Reveals Her­self in Vin­tage Doc­u­men­tary Clips

Geor­gia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art, a Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Painter Nar­rat­ed by Gene Hack­man

How Geor­gia O’Keeffe Became Geor­gia O’Keeffe: An Ani­mat­ed Video Tells the Sto­ry

Browse Paint­ings, Pho­tos, Papers & More in the Archive of Alfred Stieglitz and Geor­gia O’Keeffe, America’s Orig­i­nal Art Pow­er Cou­ple

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Discover the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, “the World’s Most Beautiful Calendar” (1416)

We don’t hear the phrase “very rich hours” as much as we used to, back when it was occa­sion­al­ly employed in the head­lines of mag­a­zine arti­cles or the titles of nov­els. Today, it’s much to be doubt­ed whether even one in a hun­dred thou­sand of us could begin to iden­ti­fy its ref­er­ent — or at least it was much to be doubt­ed until an elab­o­rate New York Times online fea­ture appeared just last week. Writ­ten by art crit­ic Jason Fara­go, “Search­ing for Lost Time in the World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Cal­en­dar” takes a close look at the Très Rich­es Heures du Duc de Berry, a late-medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script cre­at­ed (between 1412 and 1416) for the bib­lio­philic John, Duke of Berry by a trio of Flem­ish artists known as the Lim­bourg broth­ers.

The word “hours” in the title refers not to units of time, exact­ly, but to the prayers that believ­ers must speak at cer­tain hours: this is a book of hours, a huge­ly pop­u­lar form of man­u­script in the Mid­dle Ages. But com­pared to most sur­viv­ing books of hours, Très Rich­es Heures du Duc de Berry is, well, very rich indeed.

Fara­go calls it “the finest sur­viv­ing man­u­script of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, a mon­u­ment of Inter­na­tion­al Goth­ic book arts. Real­ly, the thing is just stu­pe­fy­ing. Its pic­tures com­bine astound­ing detail with exu­ber­ant, some­times irra­tional spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion.” But “like every book of hours, it opens with a cal­en­dar. And here, on its first 12 spreads — with one full-page illus­tra­tion per month — the Lim­bourgs did their most painstak­ing work.”

Here we have just five of the images from the cal­en­dar at the head of the Très Rich­es Heures. You can see the rest at the site of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, which offers its “inti­mate North­ern vision of nature with Ital­ianate modes of fig­ur­al artic­u­la­tion” in down­load­able dig­i­tal form. These detailed images con­sti­tute a win­dow into not just medieval life (or at least an ide­al­ized ver­sion there­of), but also the medieval rela­tion­ship to time. “Time appears to be a cycle,” writes Fara­go. “It repeats year after year.” And “months rather than years were the meat of these cycles. Sea­sons. Har­vests. Feasts. Con­stel­la­tions.” All this “could be per­ceived with the sens­es. In snow­fall, in star signs. In the bright col­ors you wore in May, in the furs you wore in Decem­ber.”

On top of this pal­pa­bly cycli­cal expe­ri­ence of time, monothe­is­tic reli­gions intro­duced the notion that “time pro­gressed onward,” and indeed “offered a one-way tick­et to the end of days.” Coex­ist­ing in the medieval mind, these two con­trast­ing modes of per­cep­tion gave rise to the sort of cal­en­dars cre­at­ed and used in that era. No fin­er exam­ple exists than the Très Rich­es Heures, cre­at­ed as it was not long — at least in his­tor­i­cal time — before the approach of moder­ni­ty, with its ever more fine­ly divid­ed and rig­or­ous­ly cal­i­brat­ed chrono­met­ric regimes. Our hours are much more clear­ly demar­cat­ed than the Duke of Berry’s; whether they’re rich­er is anoth­er ques­tion entire­ly.

Vis­it the New York Times’ fea­ture on the beau­ti­ful medieval man­u­script here. If you’re inter­est­ed in delv­ing deep­er, also see the free book (cour­tesy of the Met Muse­um) The Art of Illu­mi­na­tion: The Lim­bourg Broth­ers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry.

Relat­ed con­tent:

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece the Book of Kells Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

Dis­cov­er the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, the Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­script That Sur­vived the Inqui­si­tion, Holo­caust & Yugoslav Wars

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Man­u­script in the World

Why Butt Trum­pets & Oth­er Bizarre Images Appeared in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

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

Discover the Sarajevo Haggadah, the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript That Survived the Inquisition, Holocaust & Yugoslav Wars

If you attend­ed a seder this month, you no doubt read aloud from the Hag­gadah, a Passover tra­di­tion in which every­one at the table takes turns recount­ing the sto­ry of Exo­dus.

There’s no defin­i­tive edi­tion of the Hag­gadah. Every Passover host is free to choose the ver­sion of the famil­iar sto­ry they like best, to cut and paste from var­i­ous retellings, or even take a crack at writ­ing their own.  

As David Zvi Kalman, pub­lish­er of the annu­al, illus­trat­ed Asu­fa Hag­gadah told the New York Times, “The Hag­gadah in Amer­i­ca is like Kit Kats in Japan. It’s a prod­uct that accepts a wide vari­ety of fla­vors. It’s prob­a­bly the most acces­si­ble Jew­ish book on the mar­ket.”

21st cen­tu­ry adap­ta­tions have includ­ed Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel, Sein­feld, Har­ry Pot­ter, and Curb Your Enthu­si­asm themed Hag­gadot.

There are Hag­gadot tai­lored toward fem­i­nists, Lib­er­tar­i­ans, inter­faith fam­i­lies, and advo­cates of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

One of the old­est is the mirac­u­lous­ly-pre­served Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script cre­at­ed by anony­mous artists and scribes in Barcelona around 1350.

Though it bears the coats of arms of two promi­nent fam­i­lies, its prove­nance is not defin­i­tive­ly known.

Leo­ra Bromberg of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Thomas Fish­er Rare Book Library notes that it is “espe­cial­ly strik­ing for its col­or­ful illu­mi­na­tions of bib­li­cal and Passover rit­u­al scenes and its beau­ti­ful­ly hand-scribed Sephardic let­ter­forms:”

As pre­cious as this Hag­gadah was, and still is, Hag­gadot are books that are meant to be used in fes­tive and messy settings—sharing the table with food, wine, fam­i­ly and guests. The Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah was no excep­tion to this; its pages show evi­dence that it was well used, with doo­dles, food and red wine stains mark­ing its pages.

Some brave soul took care to smug­gle this essen­tial vol­ume out with them when 1492’s Alham­bra Decree expelled all Jews from Spain.

The manuscript’s trav­els there­after are shroud­ed in mys­tery.

It sur­vived the Roman Inqui­si­tion by virtue of its con­tents. As per a 1609 note jot­ted on one of its pages, noth­ing there­in seemed to be aimed against the Church.

More hand­writ­ten notes place the book in the north of Italy in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, though its new own­er is not men­tioned by name.

Even­tu­al­ly, it found its way to the hands of a man named Joseph Kohen who sold it to the Nation­al Muse­um of Sara­je­vo in 1894.

It was briefly sent to Vien­na, where a gov­ern­ment offi­cial replaced its orig­i­nal medieval bind­ing with card­board cov­ers, chop­ping its 142 bleached calf­skin vel­lum down to 6.5” x 9” in order to fit them.

It had a nar­row escape in 1942, when a high-rank­ing Nazi offi­cial, Johann Fort­ner, vis­it­ed the muse­um, intent on con­fis­cat­ing the price­less man­u­script.  

The chief librar­i­an, Dervis Korkut, a Mus­lim, secret­ed the Hag­gadah inside his cloth­ing, reput­ed­ly telling  Fort­ner that muse­um staff had turned it over to anoth­er Ger­man offi­cer.

After that folk­lore takes over. Korkut either stowed it under the floor­boards of his home, buried it under a tree, gave it to an imam in a remote vil­lage for safe­keep­ing, or hid it on a shelf in the museum’s library.

What­ev­er the case, it reap­peared in the muse­um, safe and sound, in 1945.

The muse­um was ran­sacked dur­ing 1992’s Siege of Sara­je­vo, but the thieves, igno­rant of the Haggadah’s worth, left it on the floor. It was removed to an under­ground bank vault, where it sur­vived untouched, even as the muse­um sus­tained heavy artillery dam­age.

The pres­i­dent of Bosnia pre­sent­ed it to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers dur­ing a Seder three years lat­er.

Short­ly there­after, the head of Sarajevo’s Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty sought the Unit­ed Nations’ sup­port to restore the Hag­gadah, and house it in a suit­ably secure, cli­mate-con­trolled set­ting. 

A num­ber of fac­sim­i­les have been cre­at­ed, and the orig­i­nal codex once again resides in the muse­um where it is stored under the pre­scribed con­di­tions, and dis­played on rare spe­cial occa­sions, as “phys­i­cal proof of the open­ness of a soci­ety in which fear of the Oth­er has nev­er been an incur­able dis­ease.”

UNESCO added it to its Mem­o­ry of the World Reg­is­ter in 2017, “prais­ing the courage of the peo­ple who, even in the dark­est of times dur­ing World War II, appre­ci­at­ed its impor­tance to Jew­ish Her­itage, as well as its embod­i­ment of diver­si­ty and inter­cul­tur­al har­mo­ny depict­ed in its illus­tra­tion:”

 Regard­less of their own reli­gious beliefs, they risked their lives and did all in their pow­er to safe­guard the Hag­gadah for future gen­er­a­tions. Its destruc­tion would be a loss for human­i­ty. Pro­tect­ing it is a sym­bol of the val­ues which we hold dear.

For those inter­est­ed, the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah fig­ures cen­tral­ly in the best­selling 2008 nov­el Peo­ple of the Book, writ­ten by the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning author Geral­dine Brooks. You can read an New Times review here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Turn­ing the Pages of an Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script: An ASMR Muse­um Expe­ri­ence

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Horrifying 1906 Illustrations of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds


H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds has ter­ri­fied and fas­ci­nat­ed read­ers and writ­ers for decades since its 1898 pub­li­ca­tion and has inspired numer­ous adap­ta­tions. The most noto­ri­ous use of Wells’ book was by Orson Welles, whom the author called “my lit­tle name­sake,” and whose 1938 War of the Worlds Hal­loween radio play caused pub­lic alarm (though not actu­al­ly a nation­al pan­ic). After the occur­rence, reports Phil Klass, the actor remarked, “I’m extreme­ly sur­prised to learn that a sto­ry, which has become famil­iar to chil­dren through the medi­um of com­ic strips and many suc­ceed­ing and adven­ture sto­ries, should have had such an imme­di­ate and pro­found effect upon radio lis­ten­ers.”


Sure­ly Welles knew that is pre­cise­ly why the broad­cast had the effect it did, espe­cial­ly in such an anx­ious pre-war cli­mate. The 1898 nov­el also star­tled its first read­ers with its verisimil­i­tude, play­ing on a late Vic­to­ri­an sense of apoc­a­lyp­tic doom as the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry approached.

But what con­tem­po­rary cir­cum­stances eight years lat­er, we might won­der, fueled the imag­i­na­tion of Hen­rique Alvim Cor­rêa, whose 1906 illus­tra­tions of the nov­el you can see here? Wells him­self approved of these incred­i­ble draw­ings, prais­ing them before their pub­li­ca­tion and say­ing, “Alvim Cor­rêa did more for my work with his brush than I with my pen.”


Indeed they cap­ture the nov­el­’s uncan­ny dread. Mar­t­ian tripods loom, ghast­ly and car­toon­ish, above blast­ed real­ist land­scapes and scenes of pan­ic. In one illus­tra­tion, a grotesque, ten­ta­cled Mar­t­ian rav­ish­es a nude woman. In a sur­re­al­ist draw­ing of an aban­doned Lon­don above, eyes pro­trude from the build­ings, and a skele­tal head appears above them. The alien tech­nol­o­gy often appears clum­sy and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed, which con­tributes to the gen­er­al­ly ter­ri­fy­ing absur­di­ty that emanates from these fine­ly ren­dered plates.


Alvim Cor­rêa was a Brazil­ian artist liv­ing in Brus­sels and strug­gling for recog­ni­tion in the Euro­pean art world. His break seemed to come when the War of the Worlds illus­tra­tions were print­ed in a large-for­mat, lim­it­ed French edi­tion of the book, with each of the 500 copies signed by the artist him­self.

wells illustrated

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Cor­rêa’s tuber­cu­lo­sis killed him four years lat­er. His War of the Worlds draw­ings did not bring him fame in his life­time or after, but his work has been cher­ished since by a devot­ed cult fol­low­ing. The orig­i­nal prints you see here remained with the artist’s fam­i­ly until a sale of 31 of them in 1990. (They went up for sale again recent­ly, it seems.) You can see many more, as well as scans from the book and a poster announc­ing the pub­li­ca­tion, at Mon­ster Brains and the British Library site.


Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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:

The Very First Illus­tra­tions of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)

Edward Gorey Illus­trates H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in His Inim­itable Goth­ic Style (1960)

The War of the Worlds: Orson Welles’ 1938 Radio Dra­ma That Pet­ri­fied a Nation

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

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How to Spot a Communist by Using Literary Criticism: A 1955 Manual from the U.S. Military

In 1955, the Unit­ed States was enter­ing the final stages of McCarthy­ism or the Sec­ond Red Scare. Dur­ing this low point in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, the US gov­ern­ment looked high and low for Com­mu­nist spies. Enter­tain­ers, edu­ca­tors, gov­ern­ment employ­ees and union mem­bers were often viewed with sus­pi­cion, and many careers and lives were destroyed by the flim­si­est of alle­ga­tions. Con­gress, the FBI, and the US mil­i­tary, they all fueled the 20th cen­tu­ry ver­sion of the Salem Witch tri­als, part­ly by encour­ag­ing Amer­i­cans to look for Com­mu­nists in unsus­pect­ing places.

In the short Armed Forces Infor­ma­tion Film above, you can see the dynam­ic at work. Some Com­mu­nists were out in the open; how­ev­er, oth­ers “worked more silent­ly.” So how to find those hid­den com­mu­nists?

Not to wor­ry, the US mil­i­tary had that cov­ered. In 1955, the U.S. First Army Head­quar­ters pre­pared a man­u­al called How to Spot a Com­mu­nist. Lat­er pub­lished in pop­u­lar Amer­i­can mag­a­zines, the pro­pa­gan­da piece warned read­ers, “there is no fool-proof sys­tem in spot­ting a Com­mu­nist.” “U.S. Com­mu­nists come from all walks of life, pro­fess all faiths, and exer­cise all trades and pro­fes­sions. In addi­tion, the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, USA, has made con­cert­ed efforts to go under­ground for the pur­pose of infil­tra­tion.” And yet the pam­phlet adds, let­ting read­ers breathe a sigh of relief, “there are, for­tu­nate­ly, indi­ca­tions that may give him away. These indi­ca­tions are often sub­tle but always present, for the Com­mu­nist, by rea­son of his “faith” must act and talk along cer­tain lines.” In short, you’ll know a Com­mu­nist not by how he walks, but how he talks. Ask­ing cit­i­zens to become lit­er­ary crit­ics for the sake of nation­al secu­ri­ty, the pub­li­ca­tion told read­ers to watch out for the fol­low­ing:

While a pref­er­ence for long sen­tences is com­mon to most Com­mu­nist writ­ing, a dis­tinct vocab­u­lary pro­vides the more eas­i­ly rec­og­nized fea­ture of the “Com­mu­nist Lan­guage.” Even a super­fi­cial read­ing of an arti­cle writ­ten by a Com­mu­nist or a con­ver­sa­tion with one will prob­a­bly reveal the use of some of the fol­low­ing expres­sions: inte­gra­tive think­ing, van­guard, com­rade, hoo­te­nan­ny, chau­vin­ism, book-burn­ing, syn­cretis­tic faith, bour­geois-nation­al­ism, jin­go­ism, colo­nial­ism, hooli­gan­ism, rul­ing class, pro­gres­sive, dem­a­gogy, dialec­ti­cal, witch-hunt, reac­tionary, exploita­tion, oppres­sive, mate­ri­al­ist.

This list, select­ed at ran­dom, could be extend­ed almost indef­i­nite­ly. While all of the above expres­sions are part of the Eng­lish lan­guage, their use by Com­mu­nists is infi­nite­ly more fre­quent than by the gen­er­al pub­lic…

Rather chill­ing­ly, the pam­phlet also warned that Com­mu­nists revealed them­selves if and when they talked about “McCarthy­ism,” “vio­la­tion of civ­il rights,” “racial or reli­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion” or “peace.” In oth­er words, they were guilty if they sug­gest­ed that the gov­ern­ment was over­step­ping its bounds.

Accord­ing to Corliss Lam­on­t’s book, Free­dom Is As Free­dom Does, the First Army with­drew the pam­phlet after Mur­ray Kemp­ton slammed it in The New York Post and The New York Times wrote its own scathing op-ed. In 1955, the press could take those risks. The year before, Joseph Welch had faced up to Joe McCarthy, ask­ing with his immor­tal words, “Have you no sense of decen­cy, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decen­cy?

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared our site in 2013.

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:

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

Bertolt Brecht Tes­ti­fies Before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (1947)

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War


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The History of Ancient Japan: The Story of How Japan Began, Told by Those Who Witnessed It (297‑1274)

Here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, many of us around the world think of Japan as essen­tial­ly unchang­ing. We do so not with­out cause, giv­en how much of what goes on there, includ­ing the oper­a­tion of cer­tain busi­ness­es, has been going on for cen­turies and cen­turies. But the polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, reli­gious, eco­nom­ic, and eth­nic com­po­si­tion of the civ­i­liza­tion we’ve long known as Japan has, in fact, trans­formed a great deal over the course of its exis­tence. Some of the most dra­mat­ic changes occurred between the third and thir­teenth cen­turies, the span of time cov­ered by the video above.

“How Japan Began” comes from Voic­es of the Past, a Youtube chan­nel pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for its videos on a first-hand account of the destruc­tion of Pom­peii, an ancient Chi­nese his­to­ri­an’s descrip­tion of the Roman Empire, and how the first Japan­ese vis­i­tor to the Unit­ed States and Europe saw life there.

In telling the sto­ry of how ancient Japan (though most­ly in a time span that falls with­in Europe’s Mid­dle Ages) assumed some­thing like its cur­rent form, the video adheres to its usu­al method of direct­ly incor­po­rat­ing as many pri­ma­ry or close-to-pri­ma­ry sources as pos­si­ble: the Chi­nese Records or His­to­ry of the Three King­doms, eighth-cen­tu­ry court edicts and nation­al his­to­ries, the thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry émi­gré Chi­nese Bud­dhist monk Mugaku Sogen.

As for the rest of the nar­ra­tion, Voic­es of the Past cred­its Thomas Lock­ley, co-author of the book African Samu­rai: The True Sto­ry of Yasuke, a Leg­endary Black War­rior in Feu­dal Japan. Yasuke, whom we’ve also fea­tured before, arrived in Japan in 1579, three cen­turies after the events chron­i­cled in “How Japan Begin” — and thus quite deep indeed into the his­to­ry of a volatile land of reli­gious shifts, polit­i­cal ambi­tions, and (vol­un­tary or invol­un­tary) cul­tur­al exchanges, all amid an inter­nal state oscil­lat­ing between frag­men­ta­tion and con­sol­i­da­tion as well as an ever-chang­ing rela­tion­ship to the world at large. We can’t say what mix­ture of sta­bil­i­ty and insta­bil­i­ty will char­ac­ter­ize Japan’s next mil­len­ni­um, but we can hope its future chron­i­clers are up to the task.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Entire His­to­ry of Japan in 9 Quirky Min­utes

When a UFO Came to Japan in 1803: Dis­cov­er the Leg­end of Utsuro-bune

The 17th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Samu­rai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Cit­i­zen

Hear the First Japan­ese Vis­i­tor to the Unit­ed States & Europe Describe Life in the West (1860–1862)

1850s Japan Comes to Life in 3D, Col­or Pho­tos: See the Stereo­scop­ic Pho­tog­ra­phy of T. Ena­mi

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

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