When Salvador Dalí Gave a Lecture at the Sorbonne & Arrived in a Rolls Royce Full of Cauliflower (1955)

Salvador Dalí led a long and eventful life, so much so that certain of its chapters outlandish enough to define anyone else’s existence have by now been almost forgotten. “You’ve done some very mysterious things,” Dick Cavett says to Dalí on the 1971 broadcast of his show above. “I don’t know if you like to be asked what they mean, but there was an incident once where you appeared for a lecture in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and you arrived in a Rolls-Royce filled with cauliflowers.” At that, the artist wastes no time launching into an elaborate, semi-intelligible explanation involving rhinoceros horns and the golden ratio.

The incident in question had occurred sixteen years earlier, in 1955. “With bedlam in his mind and a quaint profusion of fresh cauliflower in his Rolls-Royce limousine, Spanish-born Surrealist Painter Salvador Dalí arrived at Paris’ Sorbonne University to unburden himself of some gibberish,” says the contemporary notice in Time. “His subject: ‘Phenomenological Aspects of the Critical Paranoiac Method.’ Some 2,000 ecstatic listeners were soon sharing Salvador’s Dalirium.”

To them he announced his discovery that “‘everything departs from the rhinoceros horn! Everything departs from [Dutch Master] Jan Vermeer’s The Lacemaker! Everything ends up in the cauliflower!’ The rub, apologized Dali, is that cauliflowers are too small to prove this theory conclusively.”

Nearly seven decades later, Honi Soit‘s Nicholas Osiowy takes these ideas rather more seriously than did the sneering correspondent from Time. “Beneath the simple shock value and easy surrealism, it becomes clear Dalí was onto something; the humble cauliflower is considered one of the best examples of the legendary golden ratio,” Osiowy writes. “Cauliflowers, rhinoceroses and anteaters’ tongues were to Dali essential manifestations of a glorious shape; deserving of an explicit depiction in his The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” painted in the year of his Sorbonne lecture. “Shape, the idea of geometry itself, is the unsung magic of not just art but our entire cultural consciousness.” Not that Dalí himself would have copped to communicating that: “I am against any kind of message,” he insists in response to a question from fellow Dick Cavett Show guest, who happened to be silent-film icon Lillian Gish. The seventies didn’t need the surreal; they were the surreal.

Related content:

When Salvador Dali Met Sigmund Freud, and Changed Freud’s Mind About Surrealism (1938)

When Salvador Dalí Dressed — and Angrily Demolished — a Department Store Window in New York City (1939)

Salvador Dalí Reveals the Secrets of His Trademark Moustache (1954)

Q: Salvador Dalí, Are You a Crackpot? A: No, I’m Just Almost Crazy (1969)

Salvador Dalí Strolls onto The Dick Cavett Show with an Anteater, Then Talks About Dreams & Surrealism, the Golden Ratio & More (1970)

How Dick Cavett Brought Sophistication to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Classic Interviews Online

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.

What Happens When Someone Crochets Stuffed Animals Using Instructions from ChatGPT

Alex Woolner knows how to put a degree in English to good use.

Past projects include a feminist typewriter blog, retrofitting sticker vending machines to dispense poetry, and a free residency program for emerging artists at a multidisciplinary studio she co-founded with playwright and painter Jason Montgomery in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

More recently, the poet and international educator has combined her interest in amigurumi crocheted animals and ChatGPT, the open source AI chatbot.

Having crocheted an amigurumi narwhal for a nephew earlier this year, she hopped on ChatGPT and asked it to create “a crochet pattern for a narwhal stuffed animal using worsted weight yarn.”

The result might have discouraged another querent, but Woolner got out her crochet hook and sallied forth, following ChatGPTs instructions to the letter, despite a number of red flags indicating that the chatbot’s grasp of narwhal anatomy was highly unreliable.

Its ignorance is part of its DNA. As a large language model, ChatGPT is capable of producing predictive text based on vast amounts of data in its memory bank. But it can’t see images.

As Amit Katwala writes in Wired:

It has no idea what a cat looks like or even what crochet is. It simply connects words that frequently appear together in its training data. The result is superficially plausible passages of text that often fall apart when exposed to the scrutiny of an expert—what’s been called “fluent bullshit.”

It’s also not too hot at math, a skill set knitters and crocheters bring to bear reading patterns, which traffic in numbers of rows and stitches, indicated by abbreviations that really flummox a chatbot.

An example of beginner-level instructions from a free downloadable pattern for a cute amigurumi shark:

DORSAL FIN (gray yarn)

Rnd 1: in a mr work 3 sc, 2 hdc, 1 sc (6)

Rnd 2: 3 sc, 1 hdc inc, 1 hdc, 1 sc (7)

Rnd 3: 3 sc, 2 hdc, 1 hdc inc, 1 sc (8)

Rnd 4: 3 sc, 1 hdc inc, 3 hdc, 1 sc inc (10)

Rnd 5: 3 sc, 1 hdc, 1 hdc inc, 3 hdc, 1 sc, 1 sc inc (12)

Rnd 6: 3 sc, 6 hdc, 3 sc (12)

Rnd 7: sc even (12); F/O and leave a long strand of yarn to sew the dorsal fin between rnds # 18-23. Do not stuff the fin.

Pity poor ChatGPT, though, like Woolner, it tried.

Their collaboration became a cause célèbre when Woolner debuted the “AI generated narwhal crochet monstrosity” on TikTok, aptly comparing the large tusk ChatGPT had her position atop its head to a chef’s toque.

Is that the best AI can do?

A recent This American Life episode details how Sebastien Bubeck, a machine learning researcher at Microsoft, commanded another large language model, GPT-4, to create code that TikZ, a vector graphics producer, could use to “draw” a unicorn.

This collaborative experiment was perhaps more empirically successful than the ChatGPT amigurumi patterns Woolner dutifully rendered in yarn and fiberfill. This American Life’s David Kestenbaum was sufficiently awed by the resulting image to hazard a guess that “when people eventually write the history of this crazy moment we are in, they may include this unicorn.”

It’s not good, but it’s a fucking unicorn. The body is just an oval. It’s got four stupid rectangles for legs. But there are little squares for hooves. There’s a mane, an oval for the head. And on top of the head, a tiny yellow triangle, the horn. This is insane to say, but I felt like I was seeing inside its head. Like it had pieced together some idea of what a unicorn looked like and this was it.

Let’s not poo poo the merits of Woolner’s ongoing explorations though. As one commenter observed, it seems she’s “found a way to instantiate the weird messed up artifacts of AI generated images in the physical universe.”

To which Woolner responded that she “will either be spared or be one of the first to perish when AI takes over governance of us meat sacks.”


In the meantime, she’s continuing to harness ChatGPT to birth more monstrous amigurumi. Gerald the Narwhal’s has been joined by a cat, an otter, Norma the Normal Fish, XL the Newt, and Skein Green, a pelican bearing get well wishes for author and science vlogger Hank Green.

When retired mathematician Daina Taimina, author of Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, told the Daily Beast that Gerald would have resembled a narwhal more closely had Woolner supplied ChatGPT with more specifics, Woolner agreed to give it another go.

Two weeks later, the Daily Beast pronounced this attempt, nicknamed Gerard, “even less narwhal-looking than the first. Its body was a massive stuffed triangle, and its tusk looked like a gumdrop at one end.”

Woolner dubbed Gerard possibly the most frustrating AI-generated amigurumi of her acquaintance, owing to an onslaught of specificity on ChatCPT’s part. It overloaded her with instructions for every individual stitch, sometimes calling for more stitches in a row than existed in the entire pattern, then dipped out without telling her how to complete the body and tail.

As silly as it all may seem, Woolner believes her ChatGPT amigurumi collabs are a healthy model for artists using AI technology:

I think if there are ways for people in the arts to continue to create, but also approach AI as a tool and as a potential collaborator, that is really interesting. Because then we can start to branch out into completely different, new art forms and creative expressions—things that we couldn’t necessarily do before or didn’t have the spark or the idea to do can be explored. 

If you, like Hank Green, have fallen for one of Woolner’s unholy creations, downloadable patterns are available here for $2 a pop.

Those seeking alternatives to fiberfill are advised to stuff their amigurumi with “abandoned hopes and dreams” or “all those free tee shirts you get from giving blood and running road races or whatever you do for fun”.

Related Content 

An Artist Crochets a Life-Size, Anatomically-Correct Skeleton, Complete with Organs

A Biostatistician Uses Crochet to Visualize the Frightening Infection Rates of the Coronavirus

Make an Adorable Crocheted Freddie Mercury; Download a Free Crochet Pattern 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.

How Artists Get Famous: A Physicist Reveals How Networks (and Not Just Talent) Contribute to Artistic Success

“The inhabitants of fifteenth-century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo,” writes tech investor and essayist Paul Graham. “Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name?” Once you get thinking about the question of “what happened to the Milanese Leonardo,” it’s hard to stop. So it seems to have been for network physicist Albert-László Barabási, whose work on the distribution of scientific genius we featured last month here on Open Culture. Graham’s speculation also applied to that line of inquiry, but it applies much more directly to Barabási’s work on artistic fame.

“In the contemporary art context, the value of an artwork is determined by very complex networks,” Barabási explains in the Big Think video above. Factors include “who is the artist, where has that artist exhibited before, where was that work exhibited before, who owns it and who owned it before, and how these multiple links connect to the canon and to art history in general.” In search of a clearer understanding of their relative importance and the nature of their interactions, he and a team of researchers gathered all the relevant data to produce “a worldwide map of institutions, where it turned out that the most central nodes — the most connected nodes — happened to be also the most prestigious museums: MoMA, Tate, Gagosian Gallery.”

So far, this may come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the art world. But the most interesting characteristic of this network map, Barabási says, is that it “allowed us to predict artistic success. That is, if you give me an artist and their first five exhibits, I’d put them on the map and we could fast-forward their career to where they’re going to be ten, twenty years from now.” In the past, the artists who made it big tended to start their career in some proximity to the map’s central institutions.”It’s very difficult for somebody to enter from the periphery. But our research shows that it’s possible”: such artists “exhibited everywhere they were willing to show their work,” eventually making influential connections by these “many random acts of exhibition.”

This research, published a few years ago in Science, “confirms how important networks are in art, and how important it is for an artist to really understand the networks in which their work is embedded.” Location matters a great deal, but that doesn’t consign talent to irrelevance. The more talented artists are, “the more and higher-level institutions are willing to work with them.” If you’re an artist, “who was willing to work with you in your first five exhibits is already a measure of your talent and your future journey in the art world.” But even if you’re not an artist, you underestimate simultaneous importance of ability and connections — and how those two factors interact with each other — at your peril. From art to science to insurance claims adjustment to professional bowling, every field involves networks: networks that, as Barabási’s work has shown us, aren’t always visible.

Related Content:

What Does It Take to Be a Great Artist?: An Aging Painter Reflects on His Creative Process & Why He Will Never Be a Picasso

An Interactive Social Network of Abstract Artists: Kandinsky, Picasso, Brancusi & Many More

21 Artists Give “Advice to the Young:” Vital Lessons from Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith & More

An Animated Bill Murray on the Advantages & Disadvantages of Fame

Why Einstein Was a “Peerless” Genius, and Hawking Was an “Ordinary” Genius: A Scientist Explains

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.

700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized & Free Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

via Atlas Obscura

Related Content:

Discover the Persian 11th Century Canon of Medicine, “The Most Famous Medical Textbook Ever Written”

15,000 Colorful Images of Persian Manuscripts Now Online, Courtesy of the British Library

The Complex Geometry of Islamic Art & Design: A Short Introduction

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

The Lunar Codex Will Digitize the Work of 30,000 Artists, and Then Archive Them on the Moon

There may not yet be civilization on the moon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no culture up there. We’ve previously featured the tiny ceramic tile, smuggled onto the Apollo 12 lunar lander, that bears art by the likes of Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. “Fallen Astronaut, an aluminum sculpture by the Belgian artist Paul van Hoeydonck, was left on the lunar surface by the Apollo 15 crew in 1971,” writes the New York Times‘ J. D. Biersdorfer. “The Arch Mission Foundation has sent Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and millions of Lunar Library pages into space,” and artists like Jeff Koons and Sacha Jafri are among the artists currently aiming to install their own work on the moon’s surface.

The Lunar Codex has grander ambitions, having assembled works from “over 30,000 artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers, from 158 countries, in four time capsules launched to the moon.” You can browse their contents at the project’s official web site, which breaks it all down into not just eight “galleries” of visual art, but also sections dedicated to film, television, music, and poetry, among other forms and media. There’s even a section for books and novels (as well as another, oddly, for novels and books), which includes a large number of curious titles to represent the achievements of human civilization: Kamikaze Kangaroos, Goofy Newfies, Don’t Taco ‘Bout Murder, In Bed with Her Millionaire Foe.

Also among all these books, stored on either digital memory cards or a nickel-based medium called NanoFiche, is The Zoo at the End of the World by one Samuel Peralta, who also happens to be the mastermind of the Lunar Codex project. “A semiretired physicist and author in Canada with a love of the arts and sciences,” Peralta has selected for preservation on the moon everything from “prints from war-torn Ukraine” to “more than 130 issues of PoetsArtists magazine” to images like “New American Gothic, by Ayana Ross, the winner of the 2021 Bennett Prize for women artists; Emerald Girl, a portrait in Lego bricks by Pauline Aubey; and the aptly titled New Moon, a 1980 serigraph by Alex Colville.”

All the work to be placed on the moon through the Lunar Codex was created by artists who are now active, or have been active in the past decade or two. As such, it reflects a particular moment in the cultural history of humanity, constituting what Peralta calls “a message in the bottle for the future that during this time of war, pandemic and economic upheaval people still found time to create beauty.” They also found time to create podcasts, as will be evidenced by the inclusion of a quarter-century-long archive of Grace Cavalieri’s interview show The Poet and the Poem, which has reached a new audience in recent years through that relatively new format — one that, to future generations of spacefarers making a stop on the moon, will offer as good a representation as any of life on Earth in the twenty-first century.

via Metafilter/Smithsonian

Related content:

Carl Sagan Sent Music & Photos Into Space So That Aliens Could Understand Human Civilization (Even After We’re Gone)

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell & 350 Other Artists to Visually Document America’s Space Program

There’s a Tiny Art Museum on the Moon That Features the Art of Andy Warhol & Robert Rauschenberg

Laurie Anderson Creates a Virtual Reality Installation That Takes Viewers on an Unconventional Tour of the Moon

NASA Puts Online a Big Collection of Space Sounds, and They’re Free to Download and Use

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.

Hokusai’s Action-Packed Illustrations of Japanese & Chinese Warriors (1836)

Katsushika Hokusai created his best-known woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa — or rather he finished its definitive version — when he was in his early sixties. That may sound somewhat late in the day by the standards of visual artists, but as Hokusai himself saw it, he was just getting started. At the Public Domain Review, Koto Sadamura quotes the artist’s own words, as included in the book One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji: “Until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish.”

Sadamura goes on to introduce a different, lesser-known, and even later series of Hokusai’s artworks: “Wakan ehon sakigake, which assembles images of famous Japanese and Chinese warriors, both historical and legendary. The Japanese term sakigake in the title signifies outstanding figures or leaders (Wakan means Japanese and Chinese, and ehon is a picture book).”

Like many a hardworking ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai created these images to order, his publisher having asked him to “fill three volumes with ‘wisdom’ [chi], ‘humanity’ [jin] and ‘bravery’ [], using examples of widely celebrated mighty heroes as reminders of military arts even in times of peace.”

The results, which you can see both at the Public Domain Review and the site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, clearly fulfill their mandate of revivifying from a glorious past, real or imagined. But they also exude a certain aesthetic familiarity even today: in Hokusai’s depiction of the Heian-period warrior Hirai Yasumasa “subduing a monster spider,” for example, “lines in the background trace the motion of the gigantic arachnid as it tumbles and its sickle-like legs flail in the air, emphasizing the movement and force in a way that resonates with the visual effects of modern manga.”

All the more surprising, then, not just that the Wakan ehon sakigake (or at least two of its planned three volumes) are now 187 years old, but also that Hokusai himself was seventy-six at the time. “Each tiny leaf growing on the rocks and each textural mark on the ragged surface is animated, filling the picture with vibrating energy,” Sadamura writes. “Every single strand of hair is charged with life.”

But the master foresaw greater achievements ahead, only after attaining the experience that would attend an even more advanced age: “At one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.” Alas, Hokusai died in 1849, at the tender age of 88, leaving us to imagine the level of artistry he might have attained had he reached maturity.

via Public Domain Review

Related content:

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai: An Introduction to the Iconic Japanese Woodblock Print in 17 Minutes

The Evolution of The Great Wave off Kanagawa: See Four Versions That Hokusai Painted Over Nearly 40 Years

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Masterpiece, Including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

View 103 Discovered Drawings by Famed Japanese Woodcut Artist Katsushika Hokusai

Hand-Colored 1860s Photographs Reveal the Last Days of Samurai Japan

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.

How the Avant-Garde Art of Gustav Klimt Got Perversely Appropriated by the Nazis

On paper, the Nazis shouldn’t have liked Gustav Klimt. As gallerist and Youtuber James Payne says in his new Great Art Explained video above, their denunciatory “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937 included the work of “Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Piet Mondrian, as well as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka” — but somehow not Klimt, “who, at one time or another, had been described as morally questionable, obscene, or even pornographic, and was friends with Jewish patrons, intellectuals, and artists.” And it isn’t as if the Nazis just ignored his work; in fact, they actively pressed a few of his paintings into the service of their ideology.

The search for those paintings, and thus an answer to the question of how they could have been given a pro-Nazi spin, takes Payne to Vienna (this video being part of his Great Art Cities sub-series). It was there that the 22-year-old Klimt — along with his brother Ernst and their friend Franz Mach — received the career-making commission, straight from the emperor himself, to paint a series of ten historical murals on the ceilings and walls of the city’s storied Burgtheater. This made possible Klimt and Mach’s next major mural project for the University of Vienna, though the former’s contributions were rejected by the officials, and later deliberately destroyed by German forces retreating at the war’s end.

Having died in 1918, Klimt never learned of his work’s ultimate fate (much less its more recent reconstruction with artificial intelligence). Even by the time the Nazis rose to power, he’d been dead long enough for them to appropriate his art, and even the much more daring art he made after the University of Vienna debacle. Take his Beethoven Frieze from 1902, a “34-meter-long homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as interpreted by Richard Wagner: Hitler’s favorite piece of music, often played at Nazi rallies, interpreted by his favorite composer.” That Klimt “celebrates the triumph of idealism over materialism” seems to have represented enough of a philosophical overlap to be useful to the Third Reich.

“In 1943, in Vienna, the Nazis even sponsored the largest-ever retrospective of Klimt’s art.” Indeed, Payne identifies “a Teutonic quality to Klimt’s work that would have appealed to the Nazi aesthetic.” But he could also be portrayed as “part of the Austrian folk tradition” with “German philosophical roots,” and like conventional Nazi artists, Klimt made much use of classical icons and nude bodies. Yet there is little in his life or worldview of which the Nazis could possibly have approved, and even his work itself suggests that he knew full well the dangers of popular appeal. “If you cannot please everyone with your actions and art, you should satisfy a few,” says the quotation from the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller incorporated into Klimt’s 1899 painting Nuda Veritas. “To please many is dangerous.”

Related content:

Gustav Klimt’s Iconic Painting The Kiss: An Introduction to Austrian Painter’s Golden, Erotic Masterpiece (1908)

The Nazis’ Philistine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937

Gustav Klimt’s Masterpieces Destroyed During World War II Get Recreated with Artificial Intelligence

Vienna’s Albertina Museum Puts 150,000 Digitized Artworks Into the Public Domain: Klimt, Munch, Dürer, and More

136 Paintings by Gustav Klimt Now Online (Including 63 Paintings in an Immersive Augmented Reality Gallery)

The Life & Art of Gustav Klimt: A Short Art History Lesson on the Austrian Symbolist Painter and His Work

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.

The First Masterpieces to Depict Regular People: An Introduction to the Reformation Painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The skating scene that opens A Charlie Brown Christmas is such an evocative, archetypical winter vision, it’s likely to stir nostalgia even in those whose childhoods didn’t involve gliding across frozen ponds.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder created a similar scene in the 16th-century. His changed the course of Western art.

Prior to his 1558 Ice Skating before the Gate of Saint George, Antwerp, Western artists mostly stuck to VIP portraits, and religious and mythological subjects.

As the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, explains above, the rare exceptions to these themes were intended to reinforce some moral instruction, often via buffoonish depictions of regular people behaving badly.

The couple in Quentin Matsys’ The Money Changer and His Wife are far less grotesque than the central figure of his satirical portrait, The Ugly Duchess, but the symbolism and the wife’s keen focus on the coins her husband is counting point to a sort of spiritual ugliness, namely a preoccupation with material wealth.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen‘s Loose Company and Pieter Aertsen’s The Egg Dance are both set in brothels, where debauchery is in ample evidence.

Bruegel painted some works in this vein too. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent pits pious churchgoers against a plump butcher riding a barrel, a guy with a pot on his head, and many more revelers acting the fool.

His skating scene, by contrast, passes no judgements. It’s just an observation of ordinary citizens amusing themselves outdoors during the ‘Little Ice Age’ that gripped Western Europe in the mid 16th century.

Adults bind runner-like blades to their feet with laces…

A small child uses poles to propel himself on a sled made from the mandible of a cow or horse…

A background figure plays with a hockey stick…

Less gifted skaters cut ungainly figures as they attempt to remain upright. (Pity the poor woman sprawled in the middle, whose skirts have flipped up to expose her bare heinie…)

Bruegel’s humanist portrayal of a crowd engaged in a recognizable, populist activity proved wildly popular with the growing merchant class. They might not have been able to afford an original painting, but prints of the engraving, published by the wonderfully named Hieronymus Cock, were well within their reach.

The everyday subject matter that so captivated them was made possible in part by the Protestant Reformation, which came to a head with the Iconoclastic Fury, eight years after “Peasant” Bruegel’s densely populated image appeared.

The image wins the approval of modern skating buffs too.

American field hockey pioneer Constance M.K. Applebee included it in her 20s era magazine, The Sportswoman. So did sportswriter Arthur R. Goodfellow in 1972’s Wonderful world of skates: Seventeen centuries of skating which prompted figure skating historian Ryan Stevens to quote a translated Old Flemish inscription on his blog:

Skating on ice outside the walls of Antwerp,

Some slide hither, others hence, all have onlookers everywhere;

One trips, another falls, some stand upright and chat.

This picture also tells one how we skate through our lives,

And glide along our paths; one like a fool, another like a wise;

On this perishable earth, brittler than ice.

Explore another of Pieter Bruegel’s teeming depictions of ordinary life with the Khan Academy/Smart History’s  breakdown of 1567’s Peasant Wedding, below.

Related Content 

The Stay At Home Museum: Your Private, Guided Tours of Rubens, Bruegel & Other Flemish Masters

What Makes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid a Masterpiece?: A Video Introduction

A Short Introduction to Caravaggio, the Master Of Light

A Brief Animated History of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses & the Reformation–Which Changed Europe and Later the World

– 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.

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.