Tove Jansson, Beloved Creator of the Moomins, Illustrates The Hobbit

What is a Hobbit? A few characters in J.R.R Tolkien’s classic work of children’s fantasy wonder themselves about the diminutive title characters who don’t get out much. Tolkien describes them thoroughly, a handful of well-known British and American actors immortalized them on screen, but the last word on what a Hobbit looks like belongs to the reader. Or — in an edition as richly illustrated as the Swedish and Finnish editions of the book were in 1962 and 1973 — to the Swedish/Finnish artist, Tove Jansson, most famous for her creation of internationally beloved children’s characters, the Moomins.

Like Bilbo Baggins himself, The Hobbit is full of surprises — while presenting itself as a book for kids, it contains adult lessons one never outgrows. So, too, was Jansson, “an acerbic and witty anti-fascist cartoonist during the Second World War,” write James Williams at Apollo.

“She wrote a picture book for children about the imminent end of the world and spare, tender fiction for adults about love and family.” Jansson had exactly the sensibility to bridge Tolkien’s worlds of imaginative fancy and adult danger and moral ambiguity. But first, she wanted to cast off all associations with her most famous creation.

As Jansson wrote to a friend when she ended the Moomins, “I never spare them a thought now it’s over. I’ve completely drawn a line under all that. Just as you wouldn’t want to think back on a time you had a toothache.” The Moomins were a creative millstone, and she struggled to get their style from around her neck.

“This led to an attempt to change the way in which she drew,” notes “Tove tried different techniques and drew each figure freely again and again 20-60 times until she was happy with the result. From the book vignette illustrations, it is impossible to notice how the individual figures are pasted together into ‘a patchwork’ that made up each vignette.”

Despite her best efforts to escape her previous characters, however, “the majority of the full-page illustrations follow the characteristic style of Tove’s illustrations for the Moomin books.” Her own reservations aside, this is all to the good as Jansson’s Moomin books and comic strips were built from the same mix of sensibility — childlike wonder, grown-up ethics, and a respect for the deep ecology of myth. Both Tolkien and Jansson wrote during, after, and in response to Hitler’s rise to power and drew on “a Nordic folk tradition of trolls and forests, light and dark,” writes Williams. But Jansson brought her own artistic vision to The Hobbit. See more of her illustrations at Lithub.

via LitHub

Related Content:

The Sublime Alice in Wonderland Illustrations of Tove Jansson, Creator of the Globally-Beloved Moomins (1966)

Before Creating the Moomins, Tove Jansson Drew Satirical Art Mocking Hitler & Stalin

The Only Drawing from Maurice Sendak’s Short-Lived Attempt to Illustrate The Hobbit

Illustrations Of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit from the Soviet Union (1976)

A Restored Vermeer Painting Reveals a Portrait of a Cupid Hidden for Over 350 Years

Botched art restorations make good headlines, but rarely are we asked to consider if a posthumous change to a great master’s work represents an improvement. And yet, when images of a restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Jan Vermeer circulated recently, the world had the chance to compare the restored original painting, at the left, with an unknown painter’s revision, long thought to be Vermeer’s work. (Click here to view the paintings side by side in a larger format.) Several people announced that they preferred the doctored painting on the right, first attributed to Vermeer in 1880 (and previously attributed to Dutch masters Rembrandt and Hals).

As conservators found at the conclusion of a restoration project begun in 2017, it is the painting on the left that Vermeer intended as his final statement on the subject of a girl reading a letter at an open window. That painting puts the subject in a very different light. The naked Cupid behind the young woman — in place of an ambiguously dour patch of beige — revises over a century of art historical interpretation. “With the recovery of Cupid in the background, the actual intention of the Delft painter becomes recognizable,” says Stephan Koja, director of the Old Masters Picture Gallery.

Art historians and conservators had long known the other painting was underneath, having discovered it via X-ray in 1979. But they assumed it was Vermeer himself who made the change. “As it was not uncommon for artists to paint over their work,” My Modern Met writes, “scholars initially accepted that Vermeer had simply changed his mind and decided to keep the wall bare.” Instead, thanks to the 2017 restoration project, “researchers were able to conclude that the overpainting was completed over several decades after the canvas was finished.”

“Vermeer often incorporated empty backgrounds in his genre paintings,” a feature that has become something of a hallmark thanks to the fame of paintings like The Milkmaid. This is one reason the Cupid went undercover for so long, despite an unbalanced composition without it. But Vermeer also incorporated backgrounds filled with art, including the same Cupid painting, which appears in his lesser known A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and may have been a painting he himself owned. “There has been much speculation,” the National Gallery notes, that this painting (and another, similarly titled work) represent “fidelity” and “a venal, mercenary approach to love.” What approach might be suggested by the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window?

via Colossal

Related Content: 

See the Complete Works of Vermeer in Augmented Reality: Google Makes Them Available on Your Smartphone

A 10 Billion Pixel Scan of Vermeer’s Masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring: Explore It Online

A Gallery of 1,800 Gigapixel Images of Classic Paintings: See Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, Van Gogh’s Starry Night & Other Masterpieces in Close Detail

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

What Makes Rodin’s The Thinker a Great Sculpture: An Introduction to Rodin Life, Craft & Iconic Work

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker exists in about 28 full-size bronze casts, each approximately 73 inches high, in museums around the world, as well as several dozen castings of smaller size and plaster models and studies. The Thinker also exists as one of the most copied and parodied artworks in world history, perhaps because of its ubiquity. “Unfortunately,” Joseph Phelan writes at the Artcyclopedia, “there is a side of Rodin’s work that has become kitsch through cheap reproductions and commercial rip-offs.”

In popular interpretations, The Thinker represents philosophical abstraction. But Rodin’s figure doesn’t contemplate Plato’s forms or Kant’s categories. He dreams of hell, and brings a vision of eternal torment into being. He is a representation of the poet Dante (hence his original name, The Poet) in Rodin’s most ambitious masterwork, The Gates of Hell, made on commission from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. The subject, “bas-reliefs representing The Divine Comedy,” was “surely suggested by Rodin himself, as he was an avid reader of Dante,” the Association for Public Art points out.

Divorced from its original context — a work begun in 1880 and only completed after the artist’s death in 1917 — The Thinker becomes “a universal image,” the National Gallery of Art writes — one that “reveals in physical terms the mental effort and even physical anguish of creativity.” As Rodin himself put it, “what makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” If we can see his thoughtful posture with fresh eyes, we’ll notice his extreme stress, tension, and pain.

Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for the final 37 years of his life, and didn’t live to see it cast in full during his lifetime. The massive bronze doors — which also produced such famous Rodin sculptures as The Three Shades and The Kiss — contain around 200 individual figures and groups of sufferers from the Inferno. “For Rodin,” notes the Rodin Museum, “the chaotic population on The Gates of Hell enjoyed only one final freedom — the ability to express their agony with complete abandon … The figures on the doors poignantly and heart-rending evoke universal human emotions and experiences.”

While hell’s denizens writhe and burn below him, The Thinker, perched atop the door, curls in on himself with the strain of imagination. Whatever his original inspiration, he came unglued from the Inferno, his modular nature part of the sculptor’s original design. The Thinker is Dante, but also “in a very real sense,” the Met writes, “The Thinker is Rodin. Brutishly muscled yet engrossed in thought, coiled in tension yet loose in repose.” As a universal symbol for contemplation, he is also an image of bringing art into being through the sheer force of one’s mind.

Rodin, after all, “never produced a work of plaster, bronze, or even marble with his own hands,” says the Great Art Explained video above, preferring “an industrial approach to producing art” that meant a  supervisory role over crews of workers, raising questions about “authenticity and originality.” Perhaps Rodin “shows us that an artist should be judged by what’s in his head, not in his hands,” but The Thinker shows us that what’s in the head is also in the hands, the gnarled back, tense sinewy arms, and curled up toes.

Related Content: 

Rare Film of Sculptor Auguste Rodin Working at His Studio in Paris (1915)

A Free Online Course on Dante’s Divine Comedy from Yale University

Watch 1915 Video of Monet, Renoir, Rodin & Degas: The New Motion Picture Camera Captures the Innovative Artists

The Story Behind Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’

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

MoMA’s Online Courses Let You Study Modern & Contemporary Art and Earn a Certificate

The labels “modern art” and “contemporary art” don’t easily pull apart from one another. In a strictly historical sense, the former refers to art produced in the era we call modernity, beginning in the mid-19th century. And according to its etymology, the latter refers to art produced at the same time as something else: there is art “contemporary” with, say, the Italian Renaissance, but also art “contemporary” with our own lives. You’ll have a much clearer idea of this distinction — and of what people mean when they use the relevant terms today — if you take the Modern and Contemporary Art and Design Specialization, a set of courses from the Museum of Modern Art (aka MoMA) in New York.

Offered on the online education platform Coursera, the Modern and Contemporary Art and Design Specialization promises to “introduce you to the art of our time.” In its first course, Modern Art & Ideas, you’ll learn “how artists have taken inspiration from their environment and responded to social issues over the past 150 years.”

In the second, Seeing through Photographs (whose trailer appears above), you’ll explore photography “from its origins in the mid-1800s through the present.” The third, What Is Contemporary Art?, introduces works of the past four decades “ranging from 3-D-printed glass and fiber sculptures to performances in a factory.” The final course, Fashion as Design, affords the opportunity to “learn from makers working with clothing every day — and, in some cases, reinventing it for the future.”

You can view the entire Contemporary Art and Design Specialization for free, by “auditing” its courses. Alternatively, you can join the paid track, which costs $39 USD per month, which at Coursera’s suggested pace of seven months to complete (including a “hands-on project” for each course) comes out to $273 overall. Then, when you finish the specialization, you’ll “earn a Certificate that you can share with prospective employers and your professional network.” Whether you go the audit or certificate route, you’ll earn an understanding of “modern art” and “contemporary art” as they’re created and regarded here in the 21st century: the era deep into modernity in which we live, and one in which the boundaries of art itself — not just the adjectives preceding it — show no sign of ceasing to expand.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

Related Content:

Take Seven Free Courses From the Museum of Modern Art (aka MoMA)

What Is Contemporary Art?: A Free Online Course from The Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Presents a Free Online Class on Fashion: Enroll in Fashion as Design Today

How to Make a Savile Row Suit: A Short Documentary from the Museum of Modern Art

Art Historian Provides Hilarious & Surprisingly Efficient Art History Lessons on TikTok

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.

360 Degree Virtual Tours of the Hagia Sophia

Last year, when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia would be reconverted into a mosque, he assured a concerned UNESCO that changes to the 1,500-year-old former cathedral-turned-mosque would have “no negative impact” on its status as World Heritage Site. “A state must make sure that no modification undermines the outstanding universal value of a site listed on its territory,” the world body has said. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the “universal value” of the site does seem to have been undermined.

Designated a museum by the secular Turkish Republic in 1934, the site contains hundreds of years of history for both the Christian and Islamic worlds, and the shared heritage between them in the shifting mix of peoples who conquered, settled, and moved through the city first called Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul.

“The World Heritage site was at the centre of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and is today one of Turkey’s most visited monuments,” Reuters noted last year.

The mosque is open to the public for prayers, and anyone can visit. What they’ll find — as you can see in this recent tour video — is ugly green carpeting covering the floor, and screens, panels, and plywood obscuring the Byzantine Christian art. (The same thing was done in the smaller Hagia Sophia in the city of Trabzon.) These changes are not only distressing for UNESCO, but also for lovers of art and history around the world, myself included, who had hoped to one day see the millennia-and-a-half of blended religious and aesthetic traditions for themselves.

It’s possible Turkish politics will allow Hagia Sophia to return to its status as a museum in the future, restoring its “universal value” for world history and culture. If not, we can still visit the space virtually — as it was until last year — in the 360 degree video views above, both of which allow you to look around in any direction as they play. You can also swivel around a spherical panoramic image at 360 cities.

The BBC video at the top narrates some of the significant features of the incredible building, once the largest church in the world, including its “colored marble from around the Roman Empire” and “10,000 square meters of gold mosaic.” Learn much more about Hagia Sophia history in the video above from Khan Academy’s executive directors (and former deans of art and history), Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

Related Content:  

An Introduction to Hagia Sophia: After 85 Years as a Museum, It’s Set to Become a Mosque Again

Hear the Sound of the Hagia Sophia Recreated in Authentic Byzantine Chant

Istanbul Captured in Beautiful Color Images from 1890: The Hagia Sophia, Topkaki Palace’s Imperial Gate & More

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

Banksy’s Great British Spraycation: The Artist Spray Paints England’s Favorite Summer-Holiday Destinations

“We’re all going on a summer holiday / no more working for a week or two,” sings Cliff Richard in one of his most famous songs. “Fun and laughter on a summer holiday / no more worries for me or you.” Like The Beatles’ ultra-northern “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with its cottage rentals on the Isle of Wight (“if it’s not too dear”), Richard’s “Summer Holiday” dates from a time in Britain when tourism was, as a rule, domestic. And so it has become again over the past couple of years, what with the coronavirus pandemic and its severe curtailment of international travel. Ever tuned in to current events, the pseudonymous graffiti artist Banksy has taken the opportunity to go on a “Great British Spraycation.”

This was a busman’s holiday for Banksy, who appears to have had a detailed plan of exactly which east-coast resort towns to visit, and exactly where in each of them to surreptitiously create another of his signature pieces of high-contrast satirical art.

“The stenciled pieces are often integrated with repurposed objects from the area, highlighting the pre-planned and perfectly positioned nature of the work,” writes Designboom’s Kat Barandy. “In Lowestoft, a massive seagull dines on a box of ‘chips’ rendered by a dumpster filled with insulation material. Nearby a child is depicted building a sandcastle with a crowbar, fronted by a mound of sand on the pavement.”

That work, Arts University Bournemouth professor Paul Gough tells the BBC for its guide to the Great British Spraycation, may be a reference to the 1968 Paris student uprising and its slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!” You can see these and other fresh works documented in the video at the top of the post, which also catches the reactions of passing locals and tourists. “That looks all like mindless vandalism, that,” says one woman, articulating a common assessment of Banksy’s artistic statements. “It looks a lot better from far away than it does when you get this close,” says another. But the most telling comment, in a variety of respects, comes from a man regarding Banksy’s addition of a cartoonish tongue and ice cream cone to the statue of 19th-century mayor Frederick Savage in King’s Lynn: “Yeah, someone’s done that, ain’t they?”

Related Content:

Watch Dismaland — The Official Unofficial Film, A Cinematic Journey Through Banksy’s Apocalyptic Theme Park

Banksy Strikes Again in London & Urges Everyone to Wear Masks

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross & Banksy: Watch Banksy Paint a Mural on the Jail That Once Housed Oscar Wilde

Banksy Strikes Again in Venice

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.

Take a Trip to the LSD Museum, the Largest Collection of “Blotter Art” in the World

When Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters kicked off Haight-Ashbury’s counterculture in the 1960s, LSD was the key ingredient in their potent mix of drugs, the Hell’s Angels, the Beat poets, and their local band The Warlocks (soon to become The Grateful Dead). Kesey administered the drug in “Acid Tests” to find out who could handle it (and who couldn’t) after he stole the substance from Army doctors, who themselves administered it as part of the CIA’s MKUltra experiments. Not long afterward, Grateful Dead soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley synthesized “the purest form of LSD ever to hit the street,” writes Rolling Stone, and became the country’s biggest supplier, the “king of acid.”

Whatever uses it might have had in psychiatric settings — and there were many known at the time — LSD was made illegal in 1968 by the U.S. government, repressing what the government had itself helped bring into being. But it has since returned with newfound respectability. “Once dismissed as the dangerous dalliances of the counterculture,” writes Nature, psychedelic drugs are “gaining mainstream acceptance” in clinical treatment. Psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD “have been steadily making their way back into the lab,” notes Scientific American. “Scientists are rediscovering what many see as the substances’ astonishing therapeutic potential.”

None of this comes as news to San Francisco fixture Mark McCloud. “In the same moralistic manner many San Franciscans pontificate on the health benefits of marijuana,” writes Gregory Thomas at Mission Local, “McCloud and his friends tout the merits of acid.” Next to curing “anxiety, depression and ‘marital problems,’” it is also an important source  of folk art, says McCloud, the owner and sole proprietor of the informally-named “LSD Museum” housed in his three-story Victorian home in San Francisco.

His mission in creating and maintaining the museum formally called the Institute of Illegal Images, he says, is to “preserve a ‘skeletal’ remnant of San Francisco’s drug-induced 1960s legacy, ‘so maybe our children can better understand us.’”

Specifically, as Culture Trip explains, McCloud preserves the art on sheets of blotter acid. As is clear from the many pop cultural references on blotter art — like Beavis and Butthead and techno artist Plastikman (who named his debut album Sheet One) — the 60s blotter acid legacy extended far beyond its founders’ vision in underground scenes throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, and oughts.

Also known as the Blotter Barn or the Institute of Illegal Images, McCloud’s house is located on 20th Street between Mission and Capp. The house preserves over 33,000 sheets of LSD blotter, treating them like tiny little works of art. Most of the sheets are framed and hanging on McCloud’s walls, decorating the home with vibrant colors and patterns, and the rest are kept safe in binders. The house also features a perforation board, allowing McCloud to turn any work of art sized 7.5 by 7.5 inches into 900 pieces, as is typical for LSD blotter sheets.

McCloud has faced intense scrutiny from the FBI, and on a couple of occasions — in 1992 and again in 2001 — arrest and trial by “not very sympathetic” juries, who nonetheless acquitted him both times. Despite the fact that he has a larger collection of blotter acid sheets than the DEA, he and his museum have withstood prosecution and attempts to shut them down, since all the sheets in his possession have either never been dipped in LSD or have become chemically inactive over time. (The museum’s website explains the origins of “blotter” paper as a means of preparing LSD doses after the drug was criminalized in California in 1966.)

“What fascinates me about blotter is what fascinates me about all art. It changes your mind,” says McCloud in the Wired video at the top of the post. None of his museum’s artwork will change your mind in quite the way it was intended, but the mere association with hallucinogenic experiences is enough to inspire the artists “to build the myriad of subject matter appearing on the blotters,” Atlas Obscura writes, “ranging from the spiritual (Hindu gods, lotus flowers) to whimsical (cartoon characters), as well as cultural commentary (Gorbachev) and the just plain demented (Ozzy Osbourne).”

The museum does not keep regular hours and was only open by appointment before COVID-19. These days, it’s probably best to make a virtual visit at, where you’ll find dozens of images of acid blotter paper like those above and learn much more about the history and culture of LSD during long years of prohibition — a condition that seems poised to finally end as governments give up the wasteful, punishing War on Drugs and allow scientists and psychonauts to study and explore altered states of consciousness again.

Related Content: 

Artist Draws 9 Portraits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Experiments to Turn LSD into a “Creativity Pill”

When Michel Foucault Tripped on Acid in Death Valley and Called It “The Greatest Experience of My Life” (1975)

New LSD Research Provides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Potential to Promote Creativity

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

Take a Journey Through 933 Paintings by Salvador Dalí & Watch His Signature Surrealism Emerge

Salvador Dalí made over 1,600 paintings, but just one has come to stand for both his body of work and a major artistic current that shaped it: 1931’s The Persistence of Memory, widely known as the one with the melting clocks. By that year Dalí had reached his late twenties, still early days in what would be a fairly long life and career. But he had already produced many works of art, as evidenced by the video survey of his oeuvre above. Proceeding chronologically through 933 of his paintings in the course of an hour and a half, it doesn’t reach The Persistence of Memory until more than seventeen minutes in, and that after showing numerous works a casual appreciator wouldn’t think to associate with Dalí at all.

It seems the young Dalí didn’t set out to paint melting clocks — or flying tigers, or walking villas, or any of his other visions that have long occupied the common conception of Surrealism. And however often he was labeled an “original” after attaining worldwide fame in the 1930s and 40s, he began as nearly every artist does: with imitation.

Far from premonitions of the Surrealist sensibility with which he would be forever linked in the public consciousness, dozens and dozens of his early paintings unabashedly reflect the influence of Renaissance masters, Impressionists, Futurists, and Cubists. Of particular importance in that last group was Dalí’s countryman and idol Pablo Picasso: it was after they first met in 1926 that the changes in Dalí’s work became truly dramatic.

Viewers may be less surprised that Dalí did so much before The Persistence of Memory than that he did even more after it. Though he would never return to the relatively straightforward depictions of reality found among his work of the 1920s, the dreamscapes he realized throughout the last half-century of his life are hardly all of a piece. (This in addition to plenty of work on the side, including a tarot deck, a cookbook, and even television commercials.) To appreciate the variations he attempted in his art even after becoming popular culture’s idea of an “almost-crazy” Surrealist requires not just seeing his work in context, but spending a proper amount of time with it.  Not to say that fans of The Persistence of Memory — especially fans in a suitable state of mind — haven’t spent hours at a stretch in fruitful contemplation of those melting clocks alone.

Related Content:

Walk Inside a Surrealist Salvador Dalí Painting with This 360º Virtual Reality Video

The Most Complete Collection of Salvador Dalí’s Paintings Published in a Beautiful New Book by Taschen: Includes Never-Seen-Before Works

When Salvador Dalí Created a Surrealist Funhouse at New York World’s Fair (1939)

Salvador Dalí’s Tarot Cards, Cookbook & Wine Guide Re-Issued as Beautiful Art Books

When Salvador Dalí Created Christmas Cards That Were Too Avant Garde for Hallmark (1960)

Salvador Dalí Explains Why He Was a “Bad Painter” and Contributed “Nothing” to Art (1986)

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.

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