History’s Mysteries Solved – Art Edition

There are many mysteries about famous works from the ancient world.  As a self-proclaimed expert on damn near everything, I’m here to set the record straight.  Here are solutions to some of art history’s most nagging questions.

Careful inspection reveals that she's walking while picking.  Clearly one of history's earliest multi-taskers.  (Image from Wikipedia dot org)
Careful inspection reveals that she’s walking while picking. She was a multi-tasker before multi-tasking was a “thing”. (Image from Wikipedia dot org)

The Venus de Milo’s arms, or lack thereof, have long stumped art historians (pun very much intended).  After painstaking, exhaustive research into the anatomy of countless nearly-naked women, I’ve been able to piece together what her missing arms were actually doing.  Previous guesses by so-called experts have implied that she had her hands out in the position known as supplication.  Others have speculated that she was holding an urn or possibly a plate of lamb-stuffed grape leaves.  These choices are just plain wrong.  The Venus de Milo was actually picking her nose with her right hand and holding a soiled piece of swaddling cloth in her left hand.  The statue was an early attempt at the joke of accidentally using the dirty diaper to wipe one’s nose.  Finicky marauding Moors found the humor to be sophomoric and offensive so they broke off both of the statue’s arms.

Not every mystery has an incredible, Dan Brown style answer...and get your minds out of the gutter, ferchrissakes! (Image from Wikipedia dot org)
Not every mystery has an incredible, Dan Brown style answer…and get your minds out of the gutter, ferchrissakes! (Image from Wikipedia dot org)

The Mona Lisa’s smile has long been a puzzle to anyone who’s seen it.  The guesses have been all over the map, covering everything from her being a transvestite to a woman enjoying ben-wa balls that Marco Polo brought her back from the orient.  While I applaud the creativity of the supposed historians, this is a case where the answer is nowhere near as scandalous as they’d thought.  Mona’s smile was actually due to her smug self-satisfaction following a savvy restructuring of her retirement finances.  She knew that diversifying her investments between olive oil futures and backing an up-and-coming chianti bottler would mean she wouldn’t have to spend her golden years modeling for these creepy guys in Florence.

Historians disagree as to whether or not the rhino horn was meant for the God Osirus to play ring toss against the God Ra.  (Image from Wikipedia dot org)
Historians disagree as to whether or not the rhino horn was meant for the Gods Osirus and Ra to use for a game of ring toss. (Image from Wikipedia dot org)

The sphinx in Egypt hasn’t had a nose in a long time.  Once again, there have been many incorrect guesses by historians, running the gamut from a Nubian honker to a strong Roman nose.  Those Romans!  They were everywhere back in the olden times.  In fact, the original nose of the sphinx was not a nose at all, but was a rhino horn.  The wacky Egyptians had already cross bred a lion with a man, so adding a rhino horn wasn’t all that far fetched.  Having built the pyramids to spec, Tutankaman had foolishly decided to let his builders have some creative freedom.  Upon seeing the rhino-horned sphinx, the Boy-King was so displeased that he had it removed, thus performing and inadvertently naming the world’s first rhinoplasty.  On an unpleasant side note, pieces of the horn were then used to stone the artisans to death.

Sure it's kind of a ghoulish design for a bedspread, but hazelnut farmers in ancient times weren't know to be a particularly civilized bunch.  (Image from Wikipedia dot org)
Sure it’s kind of a ghoulish design for a bedspread, but hazelnut farmers in ancient times weren’t known to be a particularly civilized bunch. (Image from Wikipedia dot org)

The Shroud of Turin has been a mystery since it was first discovered down the road from Turin in the little village of Sciolze.  The movers and shakers of the time knew that a shroud would be a big draw.  Sciolze was famous for nothing, lacking even a single Michelin-rated trattoria and as such would be a waste of an ancient treasure.  The decision was made to tell everyone that the shroud came from Turin.  The hazelnut farmer who first had the shroud in Sciolze was given a modest pay-off which he was suspiciously happy to get.   This was because the cloth was not a burial shroud at all, but was in fact an early attempt at novelty bed linens to promote JC and His Apostle Posse.  The farmer, Giuseppe Panecotta, had come up with the idea as a means of supplementing his meager earnings to guard against another disastrous plague of nut weevils.  When the know-it-alls from the big city of Turin proclaimed it to be a burial shroud, Giuseppe quietly took his pay off and went back to the farm.  He contacted his cousin Mona up in Florence and she gave him some sound advice on how to invest his little nest-egg.

Baby got back, but this pic is from the front - you'll have to take my word for it.  (Image from Wikipedia dot org)
Baby got back – but this pic is from the front, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. (Image from Wikipedia dot org)

The Venus of Willendorf was long believed to be an ancient fertility goddess.  Her round, abundant physique just seems to scream “ovulation!”  The stark reality is that the sculpture was not a fertility goddess at all, but was just a shining example of fetish porn for the ancient inhabitants of part of Austria known for its chubby chasers.  As I learned during my anatomy research for the Venus de Milo, arms on top of the breasts with the face obscured by a woven basket continues to this very day to be a favorite pose for these sickos.

To each own I guess.  I suppose being a chubby chaser is more socially acceptable than liking ones nudes armless with rhino horns.

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Happy Anniversary, Darlings!

I got a little message on my WordPress dashboard.  Apparently, today is my anniversary here in blog-land.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already, but at the same time, it seems like I’ve been here so much longer.

If you haven't read my "47 Shades of Pink" then you just don't love me.  Illustration by the author
If you haven’t read my “47 Shades of Pink” then you just don’t love me. Illustration by the author

I did a quick Google search and it turns out that the correct gift for the first anniversary is paper.  Considering I read and write blog posts on a computer, the thought of paper as an anniversary gift for you is both ironic and sweetly sentimental.  While it is our anniversary, I’m expecting nothing in return, since you probably didn’t know till I just told you.  Please don’t go out and get me some last minute piece of crap made out of paper – we’ll both regret it and I’d like to think we’re better than that.

The colored pencil drawing which accompanied my "Lust" entry in K8edid's 7 Deadly Sins contest.  I didn't win lust, but the drawing featured some sassy espadrilles! Illustration by the author
The colored pencil drawing which accompanied my “Lust” entry in K8edid’s 7 Deadly Sins contest. I didn’t win lust, but the drawing featured some sassy espadrilles! Illustration by the author

So, anyway onto my gift to you.  It’s really not so much a gift as it is a contest to win my love.  As much as I’d rather send each and every one of you an anniversary gift, now that I’ve built up a small but loyal cadre of followers, the cost of printing and shipping could easily run into the tens of dollars.

Tihs is actually a composite with typeface and the drawing.  You don't get the typeface, just the fat guy in the diner.  For the record, his name is not Willie Prader, it's Mr. Light.  Illustration for the winning gluttony entry in the 7 Deadly Sins contest.  Illustration by the author
This is actually a composite with typeface and the drawing. You don’t get the typeface, just the fat guy in the diner. For the record, his name is not Willie Prader, it’s Mr. Light. Illustration for the winning gluttony entry in the 7 Deadly Sins contest. Illustration by the author

One thing I’ve learned over our whirlwind courtship has been that not every post I’ve presented you with has been fully appreciated for the gem I’d thought it was.  In fact, a few of my posts have been barely acknowledged by you, darling.  It’s alright, I understand.  I know how busy you get with your other life away from me.  Those pesky kids, that demanding boss and your needy spouse.  I realize that my thirst for acceptance and blog adoration is going to end up on the back burner.  It’s okay – don’t apologize.

Illustration of the Easter Bunny in the off-season during my exclusive interview with him in a dive bar in the Florida panhandle.  Santa was also there as well as a leprechaun.  Things looked a little dicey for a while there, but I got out without a beating.
Illustration of the Easter Bunny in the off-season during my exclusive interview with him in a dive bar in the Florida panhandle. Santa was also there as well as a leprechaun. Things looked a little dicey for a while there, but I got out without a beating.

Since it’s our anniversary, I thought that maybe you could do a little something for me.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve lingerie or role play.  I just want to try to show you those gems one more time, and see if maybe you find them a little better the second time around.  Who knows, they may have aged like fine wines (or they may have turned to vinegar).  Give them a read and tell me which one is your favorite.  You can tell me in a sentence or wax poetic if you so desire.  Do it in the comments section of this very post, so the others can see how crazy you are about me.

The illustration for my sloth entry in the 7 Deadly Sins contest.  The thumb is not easy to draw especially for lazy people like me.(Illustration by the author)
The illustration for my sloth entry in the 7 Deadly Sins contest. The thumb is not easy to draw especially for lazy people like me.(Illustration by the author)

I’ll read your comments and pick my two favorites.  You’ll be notified and then you can choose which one of my dopey drawings you’d like a copy of.  I’ll make a quality copy of it and mail it to you (in the continental US please, I already mentioned the tens of dollars – sheesh!).  You can frame it or line the bottom of the parakeet cage with it.

These were all done before 3/18/2012 and none received more than 10 likes – most received only one or two.  I wasn’t hurt, just a little disappointed.

An early Facebook rant : My Anti-Social Networking

My explanation of my wife’s dislike of me shaving my head :  I Blame Vincent Price

House Hunters International – A little like crack, without the high : Ruminations on House Hunters

Bad hangovers mixed with vivid imagination is a recipe for bad things : Hangovers Dissected

Another Facebook rant – this time about pet memorials : RIP Skippy – We Miss You!

Just a little about yours truly and my wisenheimer ways : My Life As A Wise-Ass

I’ll comb through the accolades and name the winners on March 1st.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hit “Publish” and pray that I get at least two entries.

Happy Anniversary!

Art school psychology

Sure it’s a dark and eerie looking drawing. What did you expect, a clown portrait?   (Drawing by the author, a long damn time ago)

As an undergrad, just a million years ago or so, I majored in fine arts.  My concentration was in printmaking.  While my friends with “real” majors had exams and quizzes, I mostly had “crits” which is cool, art student slang for critiques.  On crit day, we’d all hunker down in the printmaking studio with a proof or two of our works in progress tacked up on the wall.  Just to give you business and nursing majors a general understanding, art majors don’t all have talent.  Some of us were just weird and didn’t fit in anywhere else.  The people with incredible talent made beautiful prints and drawings and paintings, while the talentless made ugly junk.  In the spirit of full disclosure,  my talent level was closer to talented than not, my motivational level was pretty close to “none”.

The woman who taught most of the printmaking courses may have been a frustrated psychologist.  She’d look at a student’s print and ask things like “What is this about?” or “What are you trying to say?“.  My unspoken answer was “You told us we were having a crit today, so I had to hang something up“.   My actual answer was usually not a hell of a lot better and was generally along the lines of, “I dunno, it’s just people in a subway“.

This photo of one of my etchings isn’t the greatest, but if it was, it would just be that much more disturbing anyway. Count your blessings that my cell phone takes such crappy pics.

The Sigmund Freud wannabe was never satisfied with my answers, and the resulting criticism of my work was usually harsher than it was for other students who had better back stories.

None of these students were foolish enough to go with the really broad, basic issues as their chosen topic.  “Man’s inhumanity to man” and “The horrors of war” had already been pretty well used up by Picasso, Francisco Goya and Andy Warhol.  This one kid used to put these pointless pieces of crap on the wall, which looked like he had left his paper on the bottom of a puppy cage in the Pet Pavilion at the local mall for a few days.  The images were that bad, but then he’d tell these incredible stories of what the piece was about.  The teacher and her lemmings would all furrow their brows and nod and make sounds like they were savoring a fine cognac while having foot massages.

Is it a man on a subway with a jaunty cap, or is it something deeper, more troubling? (Detail of an etching by the author, done a long damn time ago)

I decided that my images wouldn’t change, but that my stories would.  A day or two before my next crit, I sat down with one of my prints and a few beers.  I looked at the piece and tried to decide what it was going to be about.  I came up with a few wild yarns and committed to one of them.  The problem was going to be my lack of anything resembling a poker face.  I decided to compensate by holding my hand over my lower face in shame.

Crit day came and we all posted our prints.  In defense of my printmaking instructor and classmates, my etchings were typically rather dark and strange.  Looking back, they may have wanted to know what they were about because they feared for their safety or mine.  Of course, they were totally wrong; John Wayne Gacy was the one painting clown portraits, not me.  I slunked back to my seat and waited.

The first student told us all about her etching.  She was a pretty girl who had no business being in art classes.  She had had a wonderful dog named Skippy or some such name, back in her childhood, which was really only a few years earlier (It’s funny to think of nostalgic 19 year olds).  Skippy had run away or was hit by a garbage truck or something, and the girl missed him.  Her print was a poorly drawn picture of a dog.  It’s face was asymetrical and the fur looked kind of like it belonged on a sea lion.  It was only marginally less trite than the sunset piece she had shown us at the last crit.  The instructor had to be wondering why she had pursued an MFA, that maybe she should’ve listened to her father and majored in accounting.  None of the criticism the girl received addressed the fact that her dog’s face looked like it was melting or that even if it was incredibly well drawn, it still would only be a picture of a seal-dog.  Instead, people talked about how to express the love and the empty pain of loss.

I sat there listening and silently rehearsing my story over and over again in my mind – praying for a poker face.

One of the really talented kids went next and it was hard for anyone to come up with anything to say beyond praising his talent and bravery for addressing his recent problems with bed wetting in such a graphically poetic manner.

The spotlight shifted to me.  Great!  You never want to directly follow one of the talented ones, because everyone has all kinds of pent up criticism at that point.  My saving grace was that my story trumped bed wetting, big time.

Dave,” the instructor said, “that’s a very intriguing image.  What’s the idea behind it?

Well, ” I began, unsure if I’d actually be able to get through it.  “When I was a kid, there was this lady.  She was kind of  strange, but my parents are in the theater, so we have some odd people hanging around a lot.”  It’s always good to pepper your far-fetched stories with some truth – my parents really were theater folk, but the strangest people I met usually had nothing to do with the summer stock cast of “The King and I”.

I soldiered bravely on after a dramatic pause,  “Anyway, this lady always paid more attention to me than to my brothers.  She had kind of big hands and her neck was weird.  One day, when my parents weren’t around…she..umm…

I couldn’t go on, I was trying so hard not to smile, that I actually looked like I was holding back tears.  The instructor jumped into the fray and started talking about the image and making sure that I didn’t have any more pressure to say anything.  The other students were sneaking nervous glances at me then quickly looking back at the print.   My long, complicated story about being molested by a transvestite could stay right where it was in my silly head.  My classmates took the teacher’s lead and all started talking about the image, and the haunting qualities and spirit of conflict in my lines. The pretty girl with the dead seal-dog even reached over and gently touched my arm as she commented.

I couldn’t believe my ploy had worked so brilliantly!  Amateur shrinks love nothing more than having one of their “patients” have a “breakthrough”.  My printmaking instructor was beside herself with the power of art and her apparent abilities to help troubled youth confront the demons in their lives with paper and ink.  The pretty girl probably thought better of anything more than an arm pat, as I was clearly damaged goods.

I still had to do lots of work creating and refining my prints as I pursued my degree, but I was excused from having to go into detail as to discussing the motives for my images.  I was allowed to just talk about the composition and other purely graphic qualities of my stuff.  Some newer classmates were undoubtedly quietly briefed by the few who were witness to my truncated tranny story.

I have to admit though, once in a while I’ll glance at one of those old prints and wonder what the hell I really was thinking of when I made it.  I’ve settled on the thought that whatever it was, it was likely so horrific that I should keep the memories repressed.

Claes Oldenburg and Me – Misunderstood Artists

Recently, while driving South on Broad Street in Philadelphia, my dear friend and I spotted one of Claes Oldenburg’s impressive, whimsical sculptures.  While the subject of his piece was fairly obvious, my friend thought it looked like something else.

It’s no secret that the works of artists are frequently misinterpreted by the common rabble.  Even someone as vastly cultured as myself can look at a Rothko painting and exclaim that it looks like a big block of color with another block of color in it too.

This might be about man's inhumanity to man, or maybe it's about the artist's love of delicious strawberry shortcake...or maybe not.. (Rothko white over red - Image from etc.cmu.edu/projects/atl/rothko.htm)

I might look at a Robert Motherwell painting and see nothing more than a big black rectangle.  (On a side note, I’d like to take a brief moment to thank my parents for footing the bill for that undergrad degree which included quite a few art history courses – without their support, I might have gone through life thinking that Robert Motherwell was a British soccer player).

This is a painting by Robert Motherwell, or maybe it's a lithograph. I don't need to tell you what this is about - it's obvious. (Image by elogedelart.canalblog.com/archives/2009/06/20/14146298.html)

Oldenburg though, is not someone whose work is usually subject to such blatant misinterpretation.  He’s renowned for taking everyday objects and looking at them differently.  His sculptures include subjects such as a giant clothespin (Also in Philadelphia), a soft fabric version of a toilet and as we saw on Broad Street, a giant paintbrush with a healthy dollop of red paint on the pavement beneath it.  The tip of the paintbrush is way up in the air, a celebratory salute to Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts .  Technically, the sculpture is on a section of Cherry Street which is closed to traffic, but it juts out onto Broad Street (For the record, it’s Broad Street, putting sculptures on it and adding a few extra signs doesn’t change the name to the Avenue of the Arts – sorry).

My friend, like most people, had no idea about this whole Avenue of the Arts nonsense.  When I pointed out the giant paintbrush, she took one glance and said it looked more like an elf’s foot.  Almost immediately, we began to speculate about the state of the rest of the elf.  We settled on him being awkwardly splayed out dead on Cherry Street, in full rigor mortis, a giant cartoon butcher knife stuck in his chest and a chalk outline around his profile.  The elf in my mind would bear something of a resemblance to Sonic the Hedgehog, but more elfin and dead.  The street would be cordoned off with crime scene tape as throngs of morbid curious onlookers milled around just up-wind.

You can see where we let our imaginations get the better of us. The giant, dead elf just out of sight on Cherry Street - it looked a little more convincing from the other direction (Photo by the author)

While I don’t think that artists in general enjoy having their hard work misunderstood by stooges like us, I like to believe that Mr. Oldenburg would humor us a little bit.  Although, now that I’m a massively successful blogger working in words rather than oil or marble, I believe I’ve earned the right to identify with the frustration of the misunderstood artist.

Take comfort Claes, at least someone saw your work.  If there was a “like” button for your paintbrush, I’d hit it.