Art History School: Learn About the Art & Lives of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Klimt, Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch & Many More

Artist and videographer Paul Priestly is an enthusiastic and generous sort of fellow.

His free online drawing tutorials abound with encouraging words for beginners, and he clearly relishes lifting the curtain to reveal his home studio set up and self designed camera rig.

But we here at Open Culture think his greatest gift to home viewers are his Art History School profiles of well-known artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh.

An avid storyteller, he’s drawn to those with tragic histories — the decision to pivot from impersonating the artist, as he did with Van Gogh, to serving as a reporter interested in how such details as syphilis and alcoholism informed lives and careers is a wise one.

Priestly makes a convincing case that Lautrec’s aristocratic upbringing contributed to his misery. His short stature was the result, not of dwarfism, but Pyknodysostosis (PYCD) a rare bone weakening disease that surely owed something to his parents’ status as first cousins.

His appearance made him a subject of lifelong mockery, and ensured that the freewheeling artist scene in Montmartre would prove more welcoming than the blueblood milieu into which he’d been born.

Priestly makes a meal of that Demi-monde, introducing viewers to many of the players.

He heightens our appreciation for Lautrec’s masterpiece, At the Moulin Rouge, by briefly orienting us to who’s seated around the table: writer and critic Édouard Dujardin, dancer La Macarona, photographer Paul Secau, and “champagne salesman and debauchee” Maurice Guibert, who earlier posed as a lecherous patron in Lautrec’s At the Café La Mie.

Queen of the Cancan La Goulue hangs out in the background with another dancer, the wonderfully named La Môme Fromage.

Lautrec places himself squarely in the mix, looking very much at home.

Consider that these names, like those of frequent Lautrec subjects acrobatic dancer Jane Avril and chanteuse Yvette Guilbert were as celebrated in Belle Epoque Montmartre as many of the painters Lautrec rubbed shoulders with — Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Manet.

In an article in The Smithsonian, Paul Trachtman recounts how Lautrec discovered the model for Manet’s famous nude Olympia, Victorine Meurent, “living in abject poverty in a top-floor apartment down a Montmartre alley. She was now an old, wrinkled, balding woman. Lautrec called on her often, and took his friends along, presenting her with gifts of chocolate and flowers — as if courting death itself.”

Meanwhile Degas sniffed that Lautrec’s studies of women in a brothel “stank of syphilis.”

Perhaps Priestly will delve into Degas for an upcoming Art History School episode … there’s no shortage of material there.

Above are three more of Paul Priestly’s Art History School profiles that we’ve enjoyed on Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. You can subscribe to his channel here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A 94-Year-Old English Teacher and Her Former Students Reunite in Their Old Classroom & Debate the Merits of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

In fiction the inspirational high-school English teacher is a cliché, despite (or indeed due to) the fact that so many of us have had at least one of them in real life. For generations of students who passed through San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, that teacher was Flossie Lewis. Long after her retirement, she went surprisingly viral in a 2016 PBS interview clip about her thoughts on aging. It seemed she retained her power to inspire, not just for her more than seven million online viewers, but also for the PBS producers who later reunited her with her former students in the very same classroom where she once taught them.

You can see this reunion take place in the video above, which also includes Flossie telling her own story of having fled Brooklyn spinsterhood on a Greyhound bus headed west. “I could command the attention of a class,” she says of the source of her power as a teacher. “I had a voice. I had that kind of personality that did not seem teacherly, but was provocative.”

Onetime student Daniel Handler, better known as the novelist Lemony Snicket, credits Flossie with an “ability to startle.” Another, now an architect, remembers “gravitas” — and his having been “intimidated by her name. Flossie is a very unusual name.” Or at least it is today, its popularity (driven, it seems, by the Bobbsey Twins books) having peaked in the early 20th century.

Flossie is also representative of her generation in another way: not particularly caring for the music of Bob Dylan. Though she can’t have been thrilled with that guitar-playing (relative) youngster’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, she’s willing to hear her students out on the subject. “The trivial task before us is to decide whether Bobby Dylan is worth the laureate,” she declares to the group of Lowell alumni gathered in her old classroom. Now all middle-aged, her former students include Dylan defenders and Dylan deniers alike, but what unites them are their undimmed memories of their teacher’s mixture of rigor, compassion, and sheer eccentricity. As one of them recalls, “You read us a sonnet from Shakespeare and said, ‘It’s no good.'” Whatever his generational relevance, the poet from Hibbing may never have stood a chance.

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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 18-Year-Old Spends a Year Alone Building a Log Cabin in the Swedish Wilderness: Watch from Start to Finish

Henry David Thoreau has at times been upbraided by critics for “everyone’s favorite incriminating biographical factoid,” writes Donovan Hohn at The New Republic: “During the two years he spent at Walden Pond, his mother sometimes did his laundry.” The author who became “America’s original nature boy “played at rugged self-sufficiency,” it is said, “while squatting on borrowed land, in a house built with a borrowed axe”; he played at rugged individualism while relying on friends and family to support him.

Who did Erik Grankvist’s laundry, we might wonder, while he built a log cabin alone during the year he recorded in the edited video above? Grankvist shows how, at 18, he “ventured out alone with only a backpack full of simple hand tools to actualize my dream… [to] build my own traditional off grid log cabin by hand from the materials of the Swedish wilderness. Just like our Forefathers did.” You may notice, or not, the cleanliness of Grankvist’s clothing. You may wonder, “who washed his forefathers’ clothes?”…

Or, you might say, “this isn’t a video about laundry but about building a log cabin!” And you would be correct. As an experiment in building a log cabin from scratch with (mostly) just a few hand tools, it is an extraordinary document: “I had no previous experience in building, gathering materials or filming,” Grankvist writes. “So I started studying myself the old arts and learning from my grandfather and mentor Åke Nilsson. I began to cut down trees and film with my phone, learning as I go.”

The project really picked up steam once Grankvist graduated high school, he writes, suggesting he did not actually live full time in the woods but that someone fed, housed, and clothed him while he worked. We see none of this in the video. We do see a tractor at one point, and Grankvist admits he’d rather the modern extravagance have been a horse.

Does it ruin the magic a little to wonder about the mundane details of the builder’s life — food, clothing, healthcare, etc. — while watching him cut his own timber, clear the land, build a stone foundation and, on top of it, a rustic little cabin? Maybe a little. But as extraordinary as it is to watch an 18-year-old Swede build a log cabin by himself, one also can’t help but remember it takes a village worth of forefathers, and mothers, to make an 18-year-old Swede. But Grankvist does not present his visual Walden as a how-to guide (any more than Thoreau did), but as his own statement of independence, one worth making even if it doesn’t tell the full truth about self-sufficiency.

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

Vintage Public Health Posters That Helped People Take Smart Precautions During Past Crises

We subscribe to the theory that art saves lives even in the best of times.

In the midst of a major public health crisis, art takes a front line position, communicating best practices to citizens with eye catching, easy to understand graphics and a few well chosen words.

In March of 2020, less than 2 weeks after COVID-19 brought New York to its knees, Angelina Lippert, the Chief Curator of Poster House, one of the city’s newer museums shared a blog post, considering the ways in which the CDC’s basic hygiene recommendations for helping stop the spread had been touted to previous generations.

As she noted in a lecture on the history of the poster as Public Service Announcement the following month, “mass public health action… is how we stopped tuberculosis, polio, and other major diseases that we don’t even think of today:”

And a major part of eradicating them was educating the public. That’s really what PSAs are—a means of informing and teaching the public en masse. It goes back to that idea … of not having to seek out information, but just being presented with it. Keeping the barrier for entry low means more people will see and absorb the information.

The Office of War Information and the District of Columbia Society for the Prevention of Blindness used an approachable looking raccoon to convince the public to wash hands in WWII.

Artist Seymour Nydorf swapped the raccoon for a blonde waitress with glamorous red nails in a series of six posters for the U.S. Public Health Service of the Federal Security Agency

Coughing and sneezing took posters into somewhat grosser terrain.

The New Zealand Department of Health’s 50s era poster shamed careless sneezers into using a hankie, and might well have given those in their vicinity a persuasive reason to bypass the buffet table.

Great Britain’s Central Council for Health Education and Ministry of Health collaborated with

Her Majesty’s Stationery Office to teach the public some basic infection math in WWII.

Children’s wellbeing can be a very persuasive tool. The WPA Federal Art Project was not playing in 1941 when it paired an image of a cherubic tot with stern warnings to parents and other family members to curb their affectionate impulses, as well as the transmission of tuberculosis.

The arresting image packs more of a wallop than this earnest and far wordier, early 20s poster by the National Child Welfare Association and the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis.

Read Poster House Chief Curator Angelina Lippert’s Brief History of PSA Posters here.

Download the free anti-xenophobia PSAs Poster House commissioned from designer Rachel Gingrich early in the pandemic here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Dying in the Name of Vaccine Freedom

Here’s the context to a sobering newly-released video from The New York Times:

In the video above, Alexander Stockton, a producer on the Opinion Video team, explores two of the main reasons the number of Covid cases is soaring once again in the United States: vaccine hesitancy and refusal.

“It’s hard to watch the pandemic drag on as Americans refuse the vaccine in the name of freedom,” he says.

Seeking understanding, Mr. Stockton travels to Mountain Home, Ark., in the Ozarks, a region with galloping contagion and — not unrelated — abysmal vaccination rates.

He finds that a range of feelings and beliefs underpins the low rates — including fear, skepticism and a libertarian strain of defiance.

This doubt even extends to the staff at a regional hospital, where about half of the medical personnel are not vaccinated — even while the intensive care unit is crowded with unvaccinated Covid patients fighting for their lives.

Mountain Home — like the United States as a whole — is caught in a tug of war between private liberty and public health. But Mr. Stockton suggests that unless government upholds its duty to protect Americans, keeping the common good in mind, this may be a battle with no end.

Sobering indeed…

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Alan Alda: 3 Ways to Express Your Thoughts So That Everyone Will Understand You

In need of someone to perform surgery in a combat zone, you probably wouldn’t choose Alan Alda, no matter how many times you’ve seen him do it on television. This sounds obvious to those of us who believe that actors don’t know how to do anything at all. But a performer like Alda doesn’t become a cultural icon by accident: his particular skill set has enabled him not just to communicate with millions at a time through film and television, but also to navigate his offscreen and personal life with a certain adeptness. In the Big Think video above, he reveals three of his own long-relied-upon strategies to “express your thoughts so that everyone will understand you.”

“I don’t really like tips,” Alda declares. Standard public-speaking advice holds that you should “vary the pace of your speech, vary the volume,” for example, but while sound in themselves, those strategies executed mechanically get to be “kind of boring.” Rather than operating according to a fixed playbook, as Alda sees it, your variations in pace and volume — or your gestures, movements around the stage, and everything else — should occur organically, as a product of “how you’re talking and relating” to your audience. A skilled speaker doesn’t follow rules per se, but gauges and responds dynamically to the listener’s understanding even as he speaks.

But if pressed, Alda can provide three tips “that I do kind of follow.” These he calls “the three rules of three”: first, “I try only to say three important things when I talk to people”; second, “If I have a difficult thing to understand, if there’s something I think is not going to be easy to get, I try to say it in three different ways”; third, ” I try to say it three times through the talk.” He gets deeper into his personal theories of communication in the second video below, beginning with a slightly contrarian defense of jargon: “When people in the same profession have a word that stands for five pages of written knowledge, why say five pages of stuff when you can say one word?” The trouble comes when words get so specialized that they hinder communication between people of different professions.

At its worst, jargon becomes a tool of dominance: “I’m smart; I talk like this,” its users imply, “You can’t really talk like this, so you’re not as smart as me.” But when we actively simplify our language to communicate to the broadest possible audience, we can discover “what are the concepts that really matter” beneath the jargon. All the better if we can tell a dramatic story to illustrate our point, as Alda does at the end of the video. It involves a medical student conveying a patient’s diagnosis more effectively than his supervisor, all thanks to his experience with the kind of “mirroring” exercises familiar to every student of acting. A doctor who can communicate is always preferable to one who can’t; even a real-life Hawkeye, after all, needs to make himself understood once in a while.

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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 Sound of Subways Around the World: A Global Collection of Subway Door Closing Announcements, Beeps & Chimes

The next L train is now arriving on the Manhattan bound track. Please stand away from the platform edge. 

Thus begins Brooklyn saxophone-percussion trio Moon Hooch’s “Number 9.”

Anyone who’s taken the train into the city from Bushwick or Williamsburg two or three times, you should be able to chant along with no trouble.

Mind the gap!” is a sentimental favorite of both native Londoners and first time visitors navigating The Tube with freshly purchased Oyster Cards.

Residents of Montreal are justly proud that their Metro’s closing doors signal is a near twin of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Civil engineer Ted Green has been documenting the mass transit sounds that cue passengers that the subway doors are about to close since 2004, when he logged 26 seconds on the Piccadilly Line in London’s Russell Square Station:

In 2003 I used the Russell Square station daily for a week and it’s the first announcement that caught my attention… Back then the Piccadilly Line did not have on-train station and door closing announcements, it had the beeps, but the stations in central London had automatic announcements from platform speakers aimed at the open train door. Once the Piccadilly Line received on-train announcements a few years later, this announcement was phased out.

Over the course of a decade, the project has expanded to encompass announcements on suburban rail, railways, trams, and light rail.

His travels have taken him to Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America, where curiosity compels him to document what happens during “dwell time,” the brief period when a train is disgorging some riders and taking on others.

Whether the canned recording is verbal or non-verbal, the intent is to keep things moving smoothly, and prevent injuries, though passengers can become blasé, attempting to force their way on or off by thrusting a limb between closing doors at the absolute last minute.

Green’s incredibly popular video compilations aren’t nearly so harrowing.

As he told The New York Times‘ Sophie Haigney and Denise Lu:

I think the appeal is the simplicity. You wonder, how can there be so many different variations of beeps? And then you listen, and they’re all so different.

The pandemic only increased his audience, as locked down commuters found themselves longing for the soundtrack of normal life.

It’s the same impulse that led software developer Evan Lewis to make an app of New York City subway sounds.

For those who want to bone up on their lines, information designer Ilya Birman, author of Designing Transit Maps, has scripted lists of London Underground and New York City subway announcements.

And Brooklyn-based Metropolitan Transit Authority worker Fred Argoff’s zine Watch the Closing Doors ushered civilians behind the scenes, sometimes exploring other cities’ subway systems or, in the case of Cincinnati, lack thereof.

Readers, do you have a fondness for a particular underground sound? Tell us what and why in the comments.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Every Christmas, Peruvians Living in the Andes Settle Their Scores at Fist-Fighting Festivals

As Chris Hedges discovered as a battle-hardened reporter, war is a force that gives us meaning. Whether we sublimate violence in entertainment, have paid professionals and state agents do it for us, or carry it out ourselves, human beings cannot seem to give up their most ancient vice; “we demonize the enemy,” Hedges wrote, “so that our opponent is no longer human,” and “we view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness…. Each side reduces the other to objects — eventually in the form of corpses.” Each new generation inherits old hatreds, and so forth….

Maybe one way to break cycles of violence is with controlled violence — using bare fists to settle scores, and walking away with only bruises, a little hurt pride, but no lasting wounds? That’s the idea behind Takanakuy, an Andean festival that takes place each year at Christmas in the province of Chumbivilcas, in the mountains of Peru. The region has a police force made up of around three officers, the nearest courthouse is “a stomach-wrecking 10-hour drive through the mountains,” notes Vice, who bring us the video above. Potentially explosive disputes naturally arise, and must be settled outside the law.

Rather than rely on state intervention, residents wait to slug it out on Takanakuy. The name of the festival come from Quechua — the region’s indigenous language — and means “to hit each other” or, more idiomatically, “when the blood is boiling.” But combatants have had upwards of twelve months to cool before they step into a ring of cheering spectators and go hand-to-hand with an opponent. Fights are also officiated by referees, who do crowd control with short rope whips and call a fight as soon as someone goes down. Takanakuy is ritualized combat, not bloodsport. Although traditionally dominated by men, women, and children also participate in fights, which usually only last a couple minutes or so.

“Some traditionalists disapprove of female participation in Takanakuy,” writes photojournalist Mike Kai Chen at The New York Times, but “an increasing number of women in Chumbivilcas are defying convention and stepping up to fight in front of their community.” Male fighters wear boots, flashy leather chaps, and elaborate, hand-sewn masks with taxidermied birds on top. Women wear elegant dresses with fine embroidery, and wrap their wrists in colorful embroidered cloth. “The ultimate aim is to begin the new year in peace. For this reason every fight… begins and ends with a hug”… or, at the very least, a handshake.

The festival also involves much dancing, eating, drinking, craft sales, and Christmas celebrations. Suemedha Sood at BBC Travel compares Takanakuy to Seinfeld‘s “Festivus,” the alt-winter holiday for the airing of grievances and feats of strength. But it’s no joke. “The festival seeks to resolve conflict, strengthen community bonds and hopefully, arrive at a greater peace.” Libertarian economists Edwar Escalante and Raymond March frame Takanakuy as “a credible mechanism of law enforcement in an orderly fashion with social acceptance.” For indigenous teacher and author and participant Victor Laime Mantilla, it’s something more, part of “the fight to reclaim the rights of indigenous people.”

“In the cities,” says Mantilla, “the Chumbivilcas are still seen as a savage culture.” But they have kept the peace amongst themselves with no need for Peruvian authorities, fusing an indigenous music called Huaylia with other traditions that date back even before the Incas. Takanakuy arose as a response to systems of colonial oppression. When “justice in Chumbivilcas was solely administered by powerful people,” Mantilla says, “people from the community always lost their case. What can I do with a justice like that? I’d rather have my own justice in public.”

See the costumes of the traditional Takanakuy characters over at Vice and see Chen’s stunning photos of friendly fistfights and Takanakuy fun at The New York Times.

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

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