Ten of the Most Expensive Arts & Art Supplies in the Worlds: Japanese Bonsai Scissors & Calligraphy Brushes, Tunisian Dye Made from Snails and More

A few years ago, we fea­tured a $32,000 pair of bon­sai scis­sors here on Open Cul­ture. More recent­ly, their mak­er Yasuhi­ro Hira­ka appeared in the Busi­ness Insid­er video above, a detailed 80-minute intro­duc­tion to ten of the most expen­sive arts and art sup­plies around the world. It will come as no sur­prise that things Japan­ese fig­ure in it promi­nent­ly and more than once. In fact, the video begins in Nara Pre­fec­ture, “where for over 450 years, the com­pa­ny Kobaien, has been mak­ing some of the world’s most sought-after cal­lig­ra­phy ink” — the sumi you may know from the clas­si­cal Japan­ese art form sumi‑e.

But even the most painstak­ing­ly pro­duced and expen­sive­ly acquired ink in the world is no use with­out  brush­es. In search of the finest exam­ples of those, the video’s next seg­ment takes us to anoth­er part of Japan, Hiroshi­ma Pre­fec­ture, where an arti­san named Yoshiyu­ki Hata runs a work­shop ded­i­cat­ed to the “no-com­pro­mise crafts­man­ship” of cal­lig­ra­phy brush­es. One of his top-of-the-line mod­els, made with rig­or­ous­ly hand-select­ed goat hair, could cost the equiv­a­lent of $27,000 — but for an equal­ly uncom­pro­mis­ing mas­ter cal­lig­ra­ph­er, mon­ey seems to be no object.

How­ev­er ded­i­cat­ed its crafts­men and prac­ti­tion­ers, by no means does the Land of the Ris­ing Sun have a monop­oly on expen­sive art sup­plies. This video also includes Tyr­i­an pur­ple dye made in Tunisia the old-fash­ioned way — indeed, the ancient way — by extract­ing the glands of murex snails; the sơn mài lac­quer paint­ing unique to Viet­nam that requires tox­ic tree resin; long-last­ing ultra-high-qual­i­ty oil paints rich with rare pig­ments like cobalt blue; and Kolin­sky’s Series 7 sable water­col­or brush, which is made from hairs from the tails of Siber­ian weasels, and whose process of pro­duc­tion has remained the same since it was first cre­at­ed for Queen Vic­to­ria in 1866.

This world tour also comes around to non-tra­di­tion­al art forms and tools. One oper­a­tion in Ohio turns the muck of indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion — “acid mine drainage,” to get tech­ni­cal — into pig­ments that can make vivid paints. The stratos­pher­ic prices com­mand­ed by cer­tain works of “mod­ern art,” broad­ly con­sid­ered, have long inspired satire, but here we get a clos­er exam­i­na­tion of the con­nec­tion between the nature of the work and the cost of pur­chas­ing it. “What looks sim­ple can be the cul­mi­na­tion of a life­time’s work,” one exam­ple of which is Kazmir Male­vich’s Black Square, “the result of twen­ty years of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and devel­op­ment.” If you don’t know any­thing about that paint­ing, it will seem to have no val­ue; by the same token, if you don’t know any­thing about those $32,000 bon­sai scis­sors, you’ll prob­a­bly use them to open Ama­zon box­es.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Makes the Art of Bon­sai So Expen­sive?: $1 Mil­lion for a Bon­sai Tree, and $32,000 for Bon­sai Scis­sors

How Ink is Made: The Process Revealed in a Mouth-Water­ing Video

Behold a Book of Col­or Shades Depict­ed with Feath­ers (Cir­ca 1915)

Why Renais­sance Mas­ters Added Egg Yolk to Their Paints: A New Study Sheds Light

Dis­cov­er Harvard’s Col­lec­tion of 2,500 Pig­ments: Pre­serv­ing the World’s Rare, Won­der­ful Col­ors

Watch Artist Shep­ard Fairey Pre­tend to Work in an Art Sup­ply Store

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 an Unscheduled, Last Minute Performance of “Fast Car” Shot Tracy Chapman to Stardom in 1988

And the award for the first Black song­writer to win Song of the Year at the Coun­try Music Awards goes to Tra­cy Chap­man …for a tune that trans­fixed mil­lions of row­dy con­cert­go­ers when she sang it at Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um 35 years ear­li­er (see above.)

At the time of that per­for­mance, Chap­man was just 24, near­ly a decade younger than 33-year-old Luke Combs, the coun­try super­star whose recent cov­er was a mas­sive hit.

“Fast Car” was not just a star-mak­ing turn at Wem­b­ley. It was a last minute, unsched­uled one.

Chap­man had already per­formed her 3‑song set at that day’s celebri­ty-stud­ded Nel­son Man­dela 70th Birth­day Trib­ute con­cert, sand­wiched between Stephen Fry and Hugh Lau­rie’s com­e­dy act and pro­to­typ­i­cal­ly 80s Scot­tish soft rock­ers Wet Wet Wet.

Her 3‑song set list was in keep­ing with the nature of the event, which helped speed the anti-apartheid activist and future South African pres­i­dent’s release from prison, and was described by music jour­nal­ist Robin Denselow, as “a more polit­i­cal ver­sion of Live Aid, with the aim of rais­ing con­scious­ness rather than just mon­ey:”


Behind the Wall

Talkin’ Bout a Rev­o­lu­tion

The audi­ence got to hear “Fast Car” thanks to the unwit­ting involve­ment of sur­prise guest Ste­vie Won­der.

The R&B great went to Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um straight from the air­port, unaware that his syn­clavier’s hard disc, con­tain­ing all the syn­the­sized music for his act, had not made the trip.

This colos­sal over­sight was only dis­cov­ered when he was head­ing toward the stage. Unwill­ing, or pos­si­bly too over­whelmed to come up with a workaround, he declined to go on, leav­ing orga­niz­ers scram­bling for an artist who could hus­tle to the mic to fill time.

Chap­man and her solo gui­tar must have struck them as a tech­ni­cal­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed solu­tion.

No one can fault her for seem­ing a bit breath­less at first. How often is an emerg­ing singer-song­writer called upon to save the day by step­ping into a legend’s shoes?

With­in a year, Chap­man was named Best New Artist at the Gram­my Awards, and “Fast Car,” which she per­formed at the cer­e­mo­ny, earned her “Best Pop Vocal Per­for­mance Female”. (Song of the Year went to Bob­by McFerrin’s “Don’t Wor­ry Be Hap­py,” a cul­tur­al jug­ger­naut of a dif­fer­ent stripe.)

A few days ago, Chap­man reprised “Fast Car” at the 2024 Gram­mys as a duet with Combs, an inter­pre­ta­tion that impressed the New York Times’ pop music crit­ic Lind­say Zoladz as “wel­com­ing and expan­sive enough to hold every sin­gle per­son (the song) had ever touched, regard­less of the mark­ers of iden­ti­ty that so often divide us:”

It was a rare reminder of music’s unique abil­i­ty to oblit­er­ate exter­nal dif­fer­ences. “Fast Car” is about some­thing more inter­nal and uni­ver­sal. It is a song about the wants and needs that make us human: the desire to be hap­py, to be loved, to be free.

That’s cer­tain­ly one inter­pre­ta­tion, but per­haps the artist who wrote it should have the final word:

I nev­er had a Fast Car, it’s just a sto­ry about a cou­ple, how they are try­ing to make a life togeth­er and they face chal­lenges…At the time that I wrote the song, I actu­al­ly didn’t real­ly know who I was writ­ing about. Look­ing back at it, and this hap­pens with oth­er songs as well, that I feel like I under­stand it only lat­er… I think that it was a song about my par­ents… And about how when they met each oth­er they were very young and they want­ed to start a new life togeth­er and my moth­er was anx­ious to leave home. My par­ents got mar­ried and went out into the world to try to make a place for them­selves and it was very dif­fi­cult going.

My moth­er didn’t have a high school diplo­ma and my father was a few years old­er. It was hard for him to cre­ate the kind of life that he dreamed of… With the edu­ca­tion that he had…. With the oppor­tu­ni­ties that were avail­able to him… In a sense I think they came togeth­er think­ing that togeth­er they would have a bet­ter chance at mak­ing it.

– 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 @AyunHallidayOver and out. 

Is Consciousness an Illusion?? Five Experts in Science, Religion & Technology Explain

Even among non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, deter­min­ing the ori­gin and pur­pose of con­scious­ness is wide­ly known as “the hard prob­lem.” Since its coinage by philoso­pher David Chalmers thir­ty years ago, that label has worked its way into a vari­ety of con­texts; about a decade ago, Tom Stop­pard even used it for the title of a play. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it’s also ref­er­enced in the episode of Big Think’s Dis­patch­es from the Well above, which presents dis­cus­sions of the nature of con­scious­ness with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch, Vedan­ta Soci­ety of New York min­is­ter Swa­mi Sar­vapriyanan­da, tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur Reid Hoff­man, San­ta Fe Insti­tute Davis Pro­fes­sor of Com­plex­i­ty Melanie Mitchell, and math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Roger Pen­rose.

Koch describes con­scious­ness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the pas­sion.” It is, in oth­er words, “the expe­ri­ence of any­thing,” and for all their sophis­ti­ca­tion, our mod­ern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ propo­si­tion, “Cog­i­to, ergo sum.” Sar­vapriyanan­da, too, makes ref­er­ence to Descartes in explain­ing his own con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness as “the light of lights,” by which “every­thing here is lit up.”

Mitchell con­ceives of it as a con­tin­u­um: “I’m more con­scious when I’m awake,” for exam­ple, and “cer­tain species are more con­scious than oth­er species.” And per­haps it could devel­op even in non-bio­log­i­cal enti­ties: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are con­scious in any inter­est­ing sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spec­trum.”

The ques­tion of whether a machine can attain con­scious­ness nat­u­ral­ly aris­es in host Kmele Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Hoff­man, who’s made seri­ous invest­ments in arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence research. As impres­sive as AI chat­bots have late­ly become, few among us would be will­ing to deem them con­scious; nev­er­the­less, attempt­ing to cre­ate not just intel­li­gence but con­scious­ness in machines may prove a fruit­ful way to learn about the work­ings of the “gen­uine arti­cles” with­in us. Pen­rose’s the­o­ry holds that con­scious­ness aris­es from as-yet-unpre­dictable quan­tum process­es occur­ring in the micro­tubules of the brain. Per­haps, as Koch has sug­gest­ed, it actu­al­ly exists to one degree or anoth­er in all forms of mat­ter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rota­tion on my child­hood Walk­man — it’s just what you make of your­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

What Is High­er Con­scious­ness?: How We Can Tran­scend Our Pet­ty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deep­er Wis­dom

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.

Behold a Surreal 1933 Animation of Snow White, Featuring Cab Calloway & Betty Boop: It’s Ranked as the 19th Greatest Cartoon of All Time

Of the three col­lab­o­ra­tions jazz singer Cab Cal­loway made with cute car­toon leg­end Bet­ty Boop, this 1933 Dave Fleis­ch­er-direct­ed “Snow White” is prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful. It cer­tain­ly is the most strange—more hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry than the first in the series “Min­nie the Moocher”, and less slap­stick-dri­ven than “The Old Man of the Moun­tain.” It is a sin­gu­lar mar­vel and right­ly deserves being deemed “cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant” by the Unit­ed States Library of Con­gress and select­ed for preser­va­tion in the Nation­al Film Reg­istry in 1994. It was also vot­ed #19 of the 50 Great­est Car­toons of all time in a poll of lead­ing ani­ma­tors.

When she made her debut in 1930, Bet­ty Boop would have been rec­og­niz­able to audi­ences as the embod­i­ment of the flap­per and the sex­u­al free­dom of the Jazz Age that was cur­rent­ly in free-fall after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Only a few years before her pre­miere, Boop would have been the mas­cot of the age; now she was a bit­ter­sweet reminder of a time that had already passed. With a cham­pagne bub­ble of a voice, kiss curls, dar­ing hem­line, plung­ing neck­line, and the ever present garter belt, she was a car­toon char­ac­ter def­i­nite­ly not designed for kids. That her best films are col­lab­o­ra­tions with Cab Cal­loway attest to that. Cal­loway would make sure his Bet­ty Boop car­toons would screen in a city a week or two before he would play a gig. His “advance woman” as he called her helped sell more tick­ets.

Accom­pa­ny­ing her in this film are the Fleischer’s orig­i­nal char­ac­ter Koko the Clown and Bim­bo the Pup, which for this film are sort of emp­ty ves­sels: they pro­tect Bet­ty, they get knocked out, and Koko gets inhab­it­ed by the spir­it of Cab Cal­loway, who then turns into a ghost, all legs and head, no tor­so. (The ghost is ani­mat­ed through roto­scop­ing over Cal­loway’s own film footage.) The Queen, whose talk­ing mir­ror changes his mind over “the fairest in the land” once see­ing Bet­ty Boop, sen­tences her to death, and then chas­es her through the under­world before turn­ing into a drag­on. At the end, Boop and her gang turn the drag­on inside out like a sock, a gross gag not seen again (I’m going to guess) until one of the Simp­sons’ Hal­loween Spe­cials.

In the mid­dle of all this boun­cy, sur­re­al may­hem is Calloway’s ghost singing “St. James Infir­mary Blues,” a mourn­ful tale of a dead girl­friend and the singers plans for the funer­al. The ori­gin of the song is shroud­ed in mys­tery, pos­si­bly a folk bal­lad by way of New Orleans jazz. What­ev­er the source, Koko/Cab sings it to the now frozen and entombed Bet­ty Boop, with the sev­en dwarves as pall­bear­ers. Koko/Cab turns into a num­ber of objects dur­ing his dance, includ­ing a bot­tle of booze and a coin on a chain.

This Snow White does in fact take place dur­ing win­ter and writer Anne Blake­ley makes the case that the flap­per, the snow, the ice, the pas­sage through the under­world, and Calloway’s song allude to a fall from grace, inno­cence to expe­ri­ence, through drug abuse—in par­tic­u­lar the very snowy cocaine. (I mean, could be! But the film is so odd as to refute any defin­i­tive read­ing.)

The ani­ma­tion was designed and com­plet­ed by one man: Roland Cran­dall, pos­si­bly as a reward from Fleis­ch­er for not leav­ing for the sun­ny west coast and the more prof­itable Dis­ney. Cran­dall worked half a year on the project and that’s real­ly what gives it its one of a kind nature. Every ele­ment, whether ani­mat­ed or in the back­ground, has been lov­ing­ly ren­dered. Fore­ground and back­ground fight for your atten­tion, and when the film fin­ish­es, you want to start all over again to see what you missed.

Last­ly, let’s praise the vibe of this film, which places its “star” on ice for half the film, and seems none the worse for it. “Snow White”—four years before Disney’s fea­ture version—is a hypno­gog­ic vision, a half-remem­bered day­dream that takes place while the radio is turned down imper­cep­ti­bly low.

The ani­ma­tion will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2020.

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Beethoven’s 5th: Watch an Animated Graphical Score

Stephen Mali­nows­ki is a self-described “Music Ani­ma­tion Machine,” with a pen­chant for cre­at­ing ani­mat­ed graph­i­cal scores. Above, he does his thing with the first move­ment of Beethoven’s Sym­pho­ny 5.

How does he make this mag­ic? Mali­nows­ki writes: “There were a lot of steps; here’s a short sum­ma­ry. I found a record­ing I could license and made the arrange­ments to use it. I found a MIDI file that was fair­ly com­plete, and import­ed that into the nota­tion pro­gram Sibelius. I com­pared it to a print­ed copy of the score from my library and fixed things that were wrong… Then, I lis­tened to the record­ing and com­pared that to the score, and mod­i­fied the score so that the tim­ings were more like what the orches­tra was actu­al­ly play­ing. I export­ed this as a MIDI file and ran it through my cus­tom frame-ren­der­ing soft­ware. Then, I made a “reduc­tion” of the score and col­ored it to match the col­ors I was plan­ning to use in the bar-graph score. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, when I squished the bar-graph score enough to make room for the nota­tion score, too much detail was lost, so I end­ed up decid­ing not to use the nota­tion. Then I put all the pieces (ren­dered frames, audio, titles) togeth­er in Adobe Pre­miere and export­ed the movie as a Quick­Time file. Then, I used On2 Flix to con­vert the final file into Flash for­mat (so that YouTube’s con­ver­sion to their Flash for­mat would­n’t change it in unpre­dictable ways), and uploaded the result.”


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Watch Dziga Vertov’s Soviet Toys: The First Soviet Animated Movie Ever (1924)

Dzi­ga Ver­tov is best known for his daz­zling city sym­pho­ny A Man with a Movie Cam­era, which was ranked by Sight and Sound mag­a­zine as the 8th best movie ever made. Yet what you might not know is that Ver­tov also made the Sovi­et Union’s first ever ani­mat­ed movie, Sovi­et Toys.

Con­sist­ing large­ly of sim­ple line draw­ings, the film might lack the verve and visu­al sophis­ti­ca­tion that marked A Man with a Movie Cam­era, but Ver­tov still dis­plays his knack for mak­ing strik­ing, pun­gent images. Yet those who don’t have an inti­mate knowl­edge of Sovi­et pol­i­cy of the 1920s might find the movie — which is laden with Marx­ist alle­gories — real­ly odd.

Sovi­et Toys came out in 1924, dur­ing Lenin’s New Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy (NEP), which gave some mar­ket incen­tives to small farm­ers. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the farm­ers start­ed pro­duc­ing a lot more food than before, and soon a whole new class of mid­dle­man traders formed — the reviled “NEP­men.”

The movie opens with a NEP­man — a bloat­ed car­i­ca­ture of a Cap­i­tal­ist (who coin­ci­den­tal­ly looks vague­ly like Niki­ta Khrushchev) — devour­ing a mas­sive heap of food. He’s so stuffed that he spends much of the rest of the movie sprawled out on the floor, much in the same way one might imag­ine Jamie Dimon after Thanks­giv­ing din­ner. Then he belch­es rich­es at a woman who is can-can­ning on his dis­tend­ed bel­ly. I said this film is odd.

Lat­er, as a cou­ple of squab­bling Russ­ian Ortho­dox priests look on, a work­er tries to extract mon­ey from the NEP­man by cut­ting his gut with a huge pair of scis­sors. When that fails, the work­er and a pass­ing peas­ant fuse bod­ies to cre­ate a two-head­ed being that stomps on the Capitalist’s bel­ly, which pops open like a piña­ta filled with cash. Then mem­bers of the Red Army pile togeth­er and form a sort of human pyra­mid before turn­ing into a giant tree. They hang the Cap­i­tal­ist along with the priests. The end.

Some of the ref­er­ences in this movie are clear: The work­er’s use of scis­sors points to the “Scis­sors Cri­sis” – an attempt by the Cen­tral Gov­ern­ment to cor­rect the price imbal­ance between agri­cul­ture and indus­tri­al goods. And the phys­i­cal meld­ing of the peas­antry and the pro­le­tari­at is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the nev­er quite real­ized dream of the Bol­she­viks. Oth­er images are as obscure as they are weird — the leer­ing close ups of the Cap­i­tal­ist, the NEP­man’s girl­friend who dis­ap­pears into his stom­ach, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary film­mak­er who has the eyes of a cam­era lens and the mouth of a cam­era shut­ter. They feel like some­thing out of a Marx­ist fever dream.

Sovi­et Toys can be found in the Ani­ma­tion sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, Named the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

A Sovi­et Ani­ma­tion of Stephen King’s Short Sto­ry “Bat­tle­ground” (1986)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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A Cultural Tour of Istanbul, Where the Art and History of Three Great Empires Come Together

Imag­ine a grand tour of Euro­pean muse­ums, and a fair few des­ti­na­tions come right to mind: the Rijksmu­se­um, the Pra­do, the Uffizi Gallery, the Lou­vre. These insti­tu­tions alone could take years to expe­ri­ence ful­ly, but it would be an incom­plete jour­ney that did­n’t ven­ture far­ther east — much far­ther east, in the view of Great Art Explained cre­ator James Payne. In his lat­est Great Art Cities video, he makes the case for Istan­bul, adduc­ing such both artis­ti­cal­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly rich sites as the İst­anb­ul Archae­o­log­i­cal Muse­um, the Basil­i­ca Cis­tern, the Zeyrek Çinili Hamam, Istan­bul Mod­ern, and of course — as pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture — the unig­nor­able Hagia Sophia.

Payne intro­duces Istan­bul as hav­ing been “the cap­i­tal of three great empires, Roman, Byzan­tine, and Ottoman.” In the con­ti­nent-strad­dling metrop­o­lis as it is today, “both ancient and mod­ern art blend ele­ments from Europe, Asia, and the Mid­dle East, reflect­ing its geo­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal posi­tion­ing as a bridge between the East and the West.”

The works on dis­play in the city con­sti­tute “a visu­al embod­i­ment of its com­plex his­to­ry,” from the Hel­lenis­tic to the Roman to the Islam­ic to the styles and media of the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­turies, with all of which “mod­ern-day Turkey is now cre­at­ing its own artis­tic lega­cy.”

That lega­cy is also deeply root­ed in the past. Vis­it the Archae­o­log­i­cal Muse­um and you can see the Alexan­der Sar­coph­a­gus from the fourth cen­tu­ry BC, whose aston­ish­ing­ly detailed carv­ings include “the only exist­ing depic­tion of Alexan­der the Great cre­at­ed dur­ing his life­time.” The under­ground Basil­i­ca Cis­tern, built in the sixth cen­tu­ry, counts as much as a large-scale work of Byzan­tine art as it does a large-scale work of Byzan­tine engi­neer­ing. From there, it’s a short tram ride on the Gala­ta Bridge across the Gold­en Horn to the brand-new, Ren­zo Piano-designed Istan­bul Mod­ern, which has paint­ings by Cihat Burak, Fahrel­nis­sa Zeid, Bedri Baykam. You may not know those names now, but if you view their work in the unique cul­tur­al con­text of Istan­bul — in which so many eras and civ­i­liza­tions are man­i­fest — you’ll nev­er for­get them.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Ancient World Comes to Life in an Ani­ma­tion Fea­tur­ing Istanbul’s Islam­ic, Ottoman, Greek & Byzan­tine Art

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

Watch Dig­i­tal Dancers Elec­tri­fy the Streets of Istan­bul

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

How Lon­dini­um Became Lon­don, Lute­tia Became Paris, and Oth­er Roman Cities Got Their Mod­ern Names

Great Art Cities: Vis­it the Fas­ci­nat­ing, Less­er-Known Muse­ums of Lon­don & Paris

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 Russian Animators Who Have Spent 40 Years Animating Gogol’s “The Overcoat”

“Steady Pushkin, mat­ter-of-fact Tol­stoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irra­tional insight which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly blurred the sen­tence and dis­closed a secret mean­ing worth the sud­den focal shift,” writes Vladimir Nabokov in his Lec­tures on Russ­ian Lit­er­a­ture. “But with Gogol this shift­ing is the very basis of his art.” When, “as in the immor­tal ‘The Over­coat,’ he real­ly let him­self go and pot­tered on the brink of his pri­vate abyss, he became the great­est artist that Rus­sia has yet pro­duced.” Tough though that act is to fol­low, gen­er­a­tions of film­mak­ers around the world have attempt­ed to adapt for the screen that mas­ter­work of a short sto­ry about the out­er­wear-relat­ed strug­gles of an impov­er­ished bureau­crat.

One par­tic­u­lar pair of Russ­ian film­mak­ers has actu­al­ly spent a gen­er­a­tion or two mak­ing their own ver­sion of “The Over­coat”: the mar­ried cou­ple Yuri Norstein and Franch­es­ka Yarbuso­va, who began the project back in 1981.

Their nine­teen-sev­en­ties short films Hedge­hog in the Fog and Tale of Tales had already received inter­na­tion­al acclaim from both fans and fel­low cre­ators of ani­ma­tion (their cham­pi­ons include no less an auteur than Hayao Miyaza­ki), with dis­tinc­tive­ly cap­ti­vat­ing effects achieved through a dis­tinc­tive­ly painstak­ing process. Whol­ly ana­log, it has grown only more labor-inten­sive as dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy has advanced so rapid­ly over the past few decades — decades that have also brought about great social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic changes in their home­land.

The Atroc­i­ty Guide video above offers a glimpse into Norstein and Yarbuso­va’s lives and work on the “The Over­coat” — to the extent that the two can even be sep­a­rat­ed at this point. Once, they were vic­tims of Sovi­et cen­sor­ship and sus­pi­cion, giv­en the ambigu­ous morals of their visu­al­ly lav­ish pro­duc­tions. Now, in their eight­ies and with this 65-minute-film nowhere near com­ple­tion (but five min­utes of which you can see in the video above), the prob­lem seems to have more to do with their own artis­ti­cal­ly com­mend­able but whol­ly imprac­ti­cal cre­ative ethos. They work to “sadis­ti­cal­ly high” stan­dards on a film that, as Norstein believes, “should be con­stant­ly chang­ing” — while also prop­er­ly express­ing the Gogo­lian themes of strug­gle, pri­va­tion, and futil­i­ty that can “only be cre­at­ed amid feel­ings of dis­com­fort and uncer­tain­ty” — hence their insis­tence on stay­ing in Rus­sia.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Three Ani­mat­ed Shorts by the Ground­break­ing Russ­ian Ani­ma­tor Fyo­dor Khitruk

Watch The Amaz­ing 1912 Ani­ma­tion of Stop-Motion Pio­neer Ladis­las Stare­vich, Star­ring Dead Bugs

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

A Sovi­et Ani­ma­tion of Stephen King’s Short Sto­ry “Bat­tle­ground” (1986)

Enjoy 15+ Hours of the Weird and Won­der­ful World of Post Sovi­et Russ­ian Ani­ma­tion

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.

A Look Inside David Bowie & Iman’s Beautiful Mountain Home

It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Iman and David Bowie invit­ing Vogue read­ers to join them on the above vir­tu­al tour of their moun­tain­top home near Wood­stock, New York when the rock leg­end was alive.

Grant­ed, short­ly after their 1992 wed­ding, he gave Archi­tec­tur­al Digest a peek at their ultra-lux­u­ri­ous, Indone­sian-style hol­i­day digs on the Caribbean island of Mus­tique, but, as reporter Christo­pher Buck­ley not­ed, “role changes have always been part of David Bowie’s per­sona.”

By the time they bought prop­er­ty and start­ed a fam­i­ly in New York, they had honed tech­niques for fly­ing under the radar in pub­lic, allow­ing them to lead a fair­ly reg­u­lar life in both Man­hat­tan and Ulster Coun­ty where the house they built on their 64-acre plot of Lit­tle Ton­shi Moun­tain is locat­ed.

Even the most ded­i­cat­ed city slick­er should be able to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of their floor-to-ceil­ing Catskills views.

“It’s stark, and it has a Spar­tan qual­i­ty about it,” Bowie said pri­or to break­ing ground on the house:

The retreat atmos­phere honed my thoughts. I’ve writ­ten in the moun­tains before, but nev­er with such grav­i­tas.

WPDH in Pough­keep­sie report­ed that “the moun­tain­top retreat was kept “secret” from fans and paparazzi as much as any­thing can be hid­den in the age of the Inter­net and TMZ:”

Locals, how­ev­er, are well aware of Bowie’s moun­tain­top home. Although many knew of his address, the rock icon’s requests for pri­va­cy were most­ly hon­ored by his neigh­bors and fel­low Ulster Coun­ty res­i­dents. Bowie was spot­ted around town but rarely has­sled by strangers.

By and large, his neigh­bors left him in peace to pick up Chi­nese take out, browse the indie book­shop, and cel­e­brate his daughter’s birth­day at a near­by water park.

Bowie record­ed his final album, Black Star, on the moun­tain. Soon after, friends and fam­i­ly gath­ered to scat­ter his ash­es there too.

Iman con­fides that she found it dif­fi­cult to spend time at the house fol­low­ing his 2016 death, but spend­ing time there dur­ing the most intense part of the pan­dem­ic helped her come to terms with grief, and rejoice in the many con­tents that remind her of him.

Some high­lights:

  • Bowie’s 1980 paint­ing, Mus­tique, one of many self-por­traits he paint­ed over the years.

I feel like when I look at his eyes and I move around the house, it’s like it’s fol­low­ing me.

  • Lynn Chadwick’s sculp­ture “Ted­dy Boy and Girl”

Art con­sul­tant Kate Cher­ta­vian recalls how Iman enlist­ed her to help her track it down in the sum­mer of 1993 to mark the couple’s first wed­ding anniver­sary:

David had shared with her a small draw­ing of a sculp­ture by Lynn Chad­wick… a ver­sion of his Ted­dy Boy and Girl that had won the Inter­na­tion­al Sculp­ture Prize at the 1956 Venice Bien­nale. Although I didn’t yet know David, his inter­est in this sculp­ture, with its musi­cal ref­er­ences and incred­i­ble ener­gy, made per­fect sense. Ted­dy Boy and Girl is one of Chadwick’s best-known bod­ies of sculp­ture that helped rock­et the artist to inter­na­tion­al fame. The series elo­quent­ly embod­ies the emer­gent 1950s British Pop cul­ture as they depict post-war music-mad teens in their Edwar­dian frock coats danc­ing with arms in the air.

…way before David and I met, this was one of his favorite books. And actu­al­ly, he told me some of the lyrics from his song “Heroes” were actu­al­ly inspired by this book. And then of course, final­ly, when we meet, we can’t believe that we both adore the same book, but that also the whole sto­ry hap­pens from where I come from, Soma­lia.

  • A self-por­trait by their then-fif­teen-year-old daugh­ter Alexan­dria Jones, in which she and her moth­er are depict­ed inclin­ing gen­tly towards each oth­er:

It’s me and her and, of course, the black star. That’s David… she paint­ed this in 2016, which was the first year with­out David.

Of per­haps less imme­di­ate inter­est to those uncon­nect­ed to the world of high fash­ion is a pricey black croc­o­dile Her­mès Birkin bag, a sou­venir of a Parisian hol­i­day ear­ly in the couple’s romance. This item does come with an endear­ing sar­to­r­i­al sur­prise for Bowie fans, how­ev­er:

…and he bought him­self, you won’t believe it, san­dals.

Round­ing out the tour are a lim­it­ed edi­tion porce­lain pitch­er by Kara Walk­er and gifts from fash­ion design­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hedi Sli­mane and fel­low for­mer mod­els Bethann Hardi­son and Nao­mi Camp­bell.

(Are we wrong to wish those san­dals had been Crocs?)

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Behold The Paint­ings of David Bowie: Neo-Expres­sion­ist Self Por­traits, Illus­tra­tions of Iggy Pop, and Much More

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

The Art Col­lec­tion of David Bowie: An Intro­duc­tion

– 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.


The Disney Artist Who Developed Donald Duck & Remained Anonymous for Years, Despite Being “the Most Popular and Widely Read Artist-Writer in the World”

Don­ald Duck first appeared in Dis­ney’s 1934 car­toon The Wise Lit­tle Hen (below). In his sub­se­quent roles, he quick­ly devel­oped into that still-famil­iar fig­ure the New York­er once described as “per­son­i­fied irri­tabil­i­ty.” But it would take him anoth­er decade or so to become more than an incom­pe­tent, quick-to-anger foil for Mick­ey Mouse. It would also take the mind and hand of Carl Barks, a for­mer Dis­ney artist who’d retreat­ed to the edge of the Cal­i­for­nia desert to raise chick­ens and draw a few com­ic books for extra mon­ey. That osten­si­ble side gig last­ed thir­ty years, dur­ing which Barks wrote and drew about 500 Don­ald Duck sto­ries, build­ing an entire world around him now regard­ed as one of the great­est works of Amer­i­can com­ic art.

Even as Barks’ comics became enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar, he labored on them in total anonymi­ty; fans called him “the Good Duck Artist” (which now seems more of a com­men­tary on the artis­tic stan­dards of Dis­ney comics at the time) or “the Duck Man.” As comics Youtu­ber matttt puts it in the video above, “in the ear­ly nine­teen-fifties, the Duck Man was sell­ing three mil­lion comics every sin­gle month, and yet no one knew his name,” because “Dis­ney was intent on keep­ing alive the myth that Walt Dis­ney him­self per­son­al­ly drew the comics.” Despite that, it was clear to many read­ers, young and old, that one par­tic­u­lar Don­ald Duck artist was pro­duc­ing mate­r­i­al of excep­tion­al ambi­tion and “astound­ing­ly high qual­i­ty.” It would take the espe­cial­ly ded­i­cat­ed among them years and years of repeat­ed attempts before find­ing out his name.

“The duck comics were, at their best, rip-roar­ing, edge-of-your-seat, globe-trot­ting com­ic adven­tures,” says matttt. “They feel less like Steam­boat Willie and more like Indi­ana Jones or Star Wars — or, should I say, Indi­ana Jones and Star Wars feel like the duck comics, because both George Lucas and Steven Spiel­berg grew up read­ing, and are vocal fans of, the Duck Man.” Oth­er avowed Barks enthu­si­asts include R. Crumb, Matt Groen­ing, and even Osamu Tezu­ka, the “God of Man­ga” him­self. “Even when I open man­ga from much lat­er, like Drag­on Ball or One Piece, by artists who, to my knowl­edge, have nev­er read a Don­ald Duck com­ic, I see the Duck Man’s influ­ence: in those half-page scene-set­ting splash­es, the big eyes, expres­sive faces, the sense of motion and pac­ing.”

Barks only came into the pub­lic eye after his actu­al retire­ment, and in his lat­er decades found him­self fêt­ed around the world. Gen­er­a­tions of read­ers had grown up famil­iar with not just his sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­pre­ta­tion of Don­ald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, but also the city of Duck­burg he cre­at­ed and the char­ac­ters with whom he pop­u­lat­ed it: Gyro Gear­loose, the Bea­gle Boys, Mag­i­ca DeSpell, and most dis­tin­guished of all, Don­ald’s impos­si­bly wealthy uncle Scrooge McDuck. Like most mil­len­ni­als, I first encoun­tered them all through Duck­Tales, the Dis­ney TV series with a Bark­sian pen­chant for exot­ic trav­els and iron­ic end­ings; this pre­pared me to appre­ci­ate Barks’ orig­i­nal sto­ries as Glad­stone Comics sub­se­quent­ly reprint­ed them in the nineties. And like all for­mer young Barks fans, I’ve only come to appre­ci­ate them more in adult­hood.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Walt Dis­ney Car­toons Are Made: 1939 Doc­u­men­tary Gives an Inside Look

Don­ald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Oth­er Dis­ney Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons from World War II

An Ear­ly Ver­sion of Mick­ey Mouse Enters the Pub­lic Domain on Jan­u­ary 1, 2024

Watch 13 Exper­i­men­tal Short Films by Tezu­ka Osamu, the Walt Dis­ney of Japan

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Praised as the Great­est Com­ic Strip of All Time, Gets Dig­i­tized as Ear­ly Install­ments Enter the Pub­lic Domain

The Comi­clo­pe­dia: An Online Archive of 14,000 Com­ic Artists, From Stan Lee and Jack Kir­by, to Mœbius and Hergé

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 French Cinema Works

Evan Puschak, the video essay­ist bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, has seen a lot of movies. Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured his analy­ses of a range of pic­tures includ­ing Blade Run­ner, Reser­voir Dogs, Par­a­site, La Dolce Vita, Nos­tal­ghia, and You’ve Got Mail. When he notices some­thing spe­cial about the films com­ing out of one coun­try in par­tic­u­lar, we’d do well to lis­ten to him address why. He once devot­ed a video essay to Jean-Luc Godard­’s Breath­less, which he frames as hav­ing set off the nou­velle vague, the first move­ment most of us think of when we think of French cin­e­ma — which many of us around the world regard as occu­py­ing une classe à part. Puschak finds one rea­son we do so in his new video essay above.

That rea­son is the Cen­tre nation­al du ciné­ma et de l’image, or CNC, the gov­ern­men­tal agency tasked with pro­mot­ing not just French film but French audio­vi­su­al arts in gen­er­al. “For decades, it sat at the cen­ter of cin­e­ma in France, affect­ing every lay­er of the indus­try there,” says Puschak. Fund­ed by tax­es on cin­e­ma admis­sions, tele­vi­sion providers, and media both phys­i­cal and stream­ing, it redis­trib­utes mon­ey to the pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and exhi­bi­tion of films, tele­vi­sion shows, video games, and oth­er forms of art (as well as to the preser­va­tion of exist­ing art). As far as movies in par­tic­u­lar, the declared idea is to “sup­port an inde­pen­dent cin­e­ma that is bold in terms of mar­ket stan­dards and that can­not find its finan­cial bal­ance with­out pub­lic assis­tance.”

“In the US film indus­try, there’s only one met­ric to judge movies: com­mer­cial suc­cess,” Puschak says. “With­out par­tic­i­pa­tion by the state, there can be no oth­er met­ric. The mar­ket deter­mines every­thing,” and that holds as true for indie films as it does for broad Hol­ly­wood spec­ta­cles. The CNC also invests heav­i­ly in “the main­te­nance and ren­o­va­tion of the­aters, espe­cial­ly those that show art-house films,” all across France, and even in cin­e­ma edu­ca­tion for school­child­ren meant to encour­age an appre­ci­a­tion for “all kinds of movies, not just those that giant cor­po­ra­tions have mil­lions of dol­lars to pro­mote.” This in con­trast to the many Amer­i­cans “con­di­tioned from an ear­ly age to see only cer­tain kinds of movies in the the­ater.”

Of course, how well a CNC-style agency would work in Amer­i­ca, a world apart from the dirigiste cul­ture of France, is a mat­ter of debate. So, in fact, is the ques­tion of how well it works in France. It has “all the prob­lems you’d expect from a large bureau­cra­cy: slug­gish­ness, red tape, waste, con­tro­ver­sies over who gets to choose what films get mon­ey.” But the CNC has evolved in fits and starts with changes in tech­nol­o­gy and cul­ture, and the US has late­ly direct­ed no small amount of finan­cial sup­port to film pro­duc­tion in the form of state-lev­el tax cred­its. As any­one who vis­its the cin­e­mas of Paris will notice, France has a “pub­lic of devot­ed film­go­ers, peo­ple who want to go out to the movie the­ater and have a wide range of expe­ri­ences there.” Cinephiles the world over would sure­ly agree that any mon­ey spent to cul­ti­vate that is mon­ey well spent.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

How Anna Kari­na (RIP) Became the Mes­mer­iz­ing Face of the French New Wave

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less: How World War II Changed Cin­e­ma & Helped Cre­ate the French New Wave

A Cin­e­mat­ic Jour­ney Through Paris, As Seen Through the Lens of Leg­endary Film­mak­er Éric Rohmer: Watch Rohmer in Paris

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

RIP Jean-Paul Bel­mon­do: The Actor Who Went from the French New Wave to Action Super­star­dom

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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