But not in my house!

There’s a trope of art criticism that runs something like this: this work of art is okay, but I wouldn’t want it in my living room.

I’m not sure where and when this critical chestnut was first uttered, but was a little surprised to find a version of it issuing from the mouth of Paul Cézanne. It had been placed there by his dealer and biographer Ambroise Vollard, who naturally had a strong professional interest in the question of matching art to appropriate spaces.

You know, Monsieur Vollard, the grandiose (I don’t say it in bad part) grows tiresome after a while. There are mountains like that; when you stand before them you shout, “Nom de Dieu. . . .” But for every day a simple little hill does well enough. Listen, Monsieur Vollard, if the Raft of the Medusa hung in my bedroom, it would make me sick.”

In terms of size and subject matter, Cézanne recognizes Gericault’s famous 23-foot painting to be better suited to the Salon or to the Louvre than to a domestic space.  Better a simple mound than a sublime mountain–let alone Gericault’s  pyramid of traumatized survivors, all heaped up and desperately straining to catch the attention of a passing speck on the horizon.

It’s the type of disturbing subject that might inspire nausea and trouble the imagination–hence, perhaps, Cézanne refuses to put it in his bedroom, rather than some other room. Here, in his bedroom, it would best inspire restless nights and bad dreams. Here romanticism would ruin romance.

raft of the medusa in a bedroom

Folks, you are free to disagree, and if this is the image you want for your bedroom then there’s a website that can help you with that.

The but-not-in-my-house trope is very familiar and still circulates today but, Cézanne aside, I can’t recall other good examples. And my hunch is that the room in question–if one is specified–is more usually a living room.

Where and when, I wonder, did this critical cliché first emerge–this tendency to claim and cut-down a work of art by placing it in one’s own living space, at least in imagination?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and to enlist your help coming up with further good examples. If you have any, please send them to me (bharvey@caad.msstate.edu) and I’ll add them to this post. Together let us celebrate the fact that there are works of art in the world that have absolutely no right being in our domestic spaces!



Nov 10, 2016. This from Hels (https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/)

I suspect the comment “this work of art is okay, but I wouldn’t want it in my living room” is actually a polite way of saying “I don’t like the painting at all”. Romanticism was never romantic; it was always untamed, melodramatic and tragic.

Cezanne wasn’t always correct, but he was right to say that traumatised survivors, all heaped up, belonged in a public gallery with enormous walls.


Thirteen Ways of Looking at NYC

Front steps of the Met. Wonky group portrait with selfie-stick.

Front steps of the Met. Wonky group portrait with selfie-stick.

In early October, a colleague and I were lucky enough to take a group of thirteen students to New York City. We had a fantastic time: it was definitely a case of lucky number thirteen.

We required each student to create a blog relating to the field trip. What follows, then, are thirteen images–one per student–each showing an aspect of our trip. Click on a photo to access the blog created by the photographer.


Getting ready to go. Mix tapes (CDs!) and luggage ready.

Getting ready to go. Mix tapes (CDs!) and luggage ready.


At the Met, some professors discuss John Singer Sargent's portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson.

At the Met, some professors discuss John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson.


The Mad Hatter and company in Central Park

The Mad Hatter and company in Central Park


The Guggenheim...

The Guggenheim…


We had a guided tour of Bushwick's graffiti and street art

We had a guided tour of Bushwick’s graffiti and street art


A morning walk across the Brooklyn Bridge

A morning walk across the Brooklyn Bridge


liberty, MR

The Statue of Liberty, as seen from our boat during an around Manhattan architectural cruise


Liberty, Bushwick graffiti style

Liberty, Bushwick graffiti style


Time Square. Just try to avoid it!

Time Square. Favorite student destination!


Greeting Manhattan from the High Line

Greeting Manhattan from the High Line


chelsea gallery CF

Touring the Chelsea galleries. Will Ryman’s The Classroom at the Paul Kasmin Gallery


9/11 Memorial


NYC loft hostel

Home base for four nights


As usual, send your comments and questions here.


Is the Picture Worth it? Cézanne’s Bathers come to London

About a month ago the British government temporarily barred the export of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If, which had sold at Christie’s for £13.5 million.

A Cezanne getting the white glove treatment.

The Cézanne gets the white glove treatment.

That’s an enormous amount of money, even if it’s nowhere close to the highest sum ever paid for a Cézanne, either at auction or privately. That distinction belongs to one of the artist’s five paintings of card players, which in 2011 was bought by the royal family of Qatar for somewhere north of $250 million. But £13.5 million is still more money than I can easily grasp, and the possibility of the U.K. hanging on to the landscape made me think back to late 1964, and an occasion when the country did stump up an awful lot of cash for another painting by the artist–Les Grandes Baigneuses, one of his three late, great bather canvases.

nat gallery great bathers

Part One: Philip and George

Now a fixture at the National Gallery, London, the painting was bought in France after the French Minister of Affairs (none other than André Malraux) granted it an export license, a decision he would be soundly criticized for. Since the 1930s, the other two great bather paintings had been in Philadelphia–one in the Barnes Foundation, the other in the city’s Museum of Art. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of regret that none of the three remained in France.

The National Gallery’s acquisition was widely reported in the press and also featured in a short British Pathé newsreel, which you can watch here. Though you might suppose the story really involves French “patrimony,” that doesn’t stop the newsreel from using some still-familiar rhetoric about stopping the work from “going abroad.” “If we had not stepped in promptly,” the narrator explains, “the masterpiece would have gone to another country, and few of our own people would ever have seen it.”

pathe national gallerypathe the picture

Dated 1965, the newsreel was probably made quite early in that year. For, on January 8, 1965, the The Times had reported that “[f]rom today [the painting] is on exhibition in the Board Room at the National Gallery where it will remain for some months.” And it is the Board Room that features in the film. But why hang the work there rather than in one of the gallery’s usual rooms?

Upon its arrival in London, the Cézanne had been, as The Times noted, “relined and very slightly retouched along a joint in the canvas near the bottom.” This does not, however, explain the longer delay, which was essentially a response to the controversial nature of the acquisition. The purchase had occurred during a time of financial crisis in the UK, and many commentators thought that this was a poor use of money and that the work didn’t warrant the steep price tag. Outraged letters to newspapers were written, arguments for and against the acquisition exchanged. So the painting went up in the Board Room, where, The Times noted, it could be “guarded by special security precautions and protected by a transparent plastic shield, against the possibility of such attempts as were made to damage the Leonardo Cartoon when first exhibited at the gallery.” In 1962, ink had been thrown over Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist shortly after it had been purchased for £800,000. The incident was still fresh in the memory. Might a similar, or worse fate, meet the controversial Cézanne?

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Virgin_and_Child_with_Ss_Anne_and_John_the_Baptist (446x600)

Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist

From its title screen to its last rhetorical question, the British Pathé film fixates on the price of the Cézanne: “half a million pounds.”

pathe title

But let’s be clear. Though the painting may have cost around £500,000, it certainly did not cost the country that much. The Max Rayne Foundation generously donated half of the funds; while the National Gallery and the government each covered a quarter. Unlike The Times, the newsreel breezily avoids these important details, preferring instead to encourage the suspicion that “we” may have paid too much for work. “For the splendidly hygienic girls in the picture,” the narrator observes, slipping into full Austin Powers mode, “one feels that not even a rash man ever left home.” Still, “[i]t’s no use non-artistic persons getting hot under the collar, culture must be served!”

admiring the picture

Philip and George look at The Great Bathers

Let us now say goodbye to the two cultured gentlemen from the newsreel–“the National Gallery Director, Sir Philip Hendy, and Senior Executive Office, Mr. George Fox”–and exchange them for some less “admiring” alternatives. Say, these two blokes.

pete and dud 2

Pete and Dud in the National Gallery

Part Two: Pete and Dud

They are, of course, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and they are performing their “Pete and Dud” characters in episode four, season one of Not Only… But Also. Broadcast on the BBC on February 20, 1965, “The Art Gallery” skit is set in a mock room in The National Gallery; here we find Pete and Dud eating sandwiches and discussing a range of matters relating to art.

It’s a brilliant and hilarious sketch. Watch it here.

At one point, Pete asks Dud whether he has “seen that bloody Leonardo da Vinci cartoon?… I couldn’t see the bloody joke… D’you know how much it cost, though?… Five hundred Billion pounds… nah, not as much… hold on a moment. Three and eight…. Or somewhere between the two.” From here, it’s a natural segue to the subject of other expensive artworks and we are immediately presented with the precise scenario the British Pathé newsreel had only recently imagined: “two non-artistic persons getting hot under the collar” about the recently acquired Cézanne. The subject of the bathers comes up towards the end of the sketch, and we are given one answer to the film’s parting question: “Is the picture worth it?” Pete answers in the negative: “Another thing we’ve wasted money on is that bloody Cézanne…. Grand Bay-nures. Have you seen that load of rubbish?”

Earlier in the sketch, Pete discusses a cliché: the idea that, in a good portrait, a sitter’s eyes will seem to follow you. He then, implausibly, transfers this idea to Vernon Ward‘s pictures of ducks, which turn out to be just the kind of work Pete and Dud are sorry to see missing from the National Gallery.


Vernon Ward: “Ducks in the morning, ducks in the evening, ducks in the summertime!”

I’ll quote the part of their conversation about Ward, because later it has unexpected relevance to their discussion of Cézanne.

Pete: The thing what makes you know that Vernon Ward is a good painter…. If you look at his ducks. Have you even looked at his ducks?

Dud: Yeah.

P: …If you look at his ducks, you see the eyes follow you around the room. Have you noticed that?

D: Yeah, Pete.

P: If you see sixteen of his ducks, you see thirty-two little eyes following you around the room.

D: Nah, you only you sixteen, cos they’ve flying sideways. And you can’t see the other eye on the other side.

P: No. But you get the impression, Dud, that the other eye is craning around the beak to look at you, don’t you? That’s the sign of a good painting, Dud, if the eyes follow you around the room it’s a good painting. If they don’t, it isn’t.

Cézanne, needless to say, is not remembered for pictures of ducks. He did, however, once incorporate an image of geese, perhaps a copy of a lost painting by Pissarro, into the background of one of his impressionist period still-lifes. But the birds’ heads are cropped and kept out of the frame. How then, Pete and Dud might ask, can we tell whether it is a good painting or not?


Cezanne, Still-Life with Soup Tureen, c.1877

The problem persists when one considers, as Pete and Dud do, the Les Grandes Baigneuses with this “eye test” in mind. Unfortunately, many of the bathers in the work are facing away from us, and only about half of them reveal their (summarily described) eyes to the viewer.

pete and dud 1

Pete and Dud: Cézanne and sandwiches

Dud: …You can’t tell whether that’s a good painting or not, because you can’t see their eyes… whether they follow you around the room.

Pete: No, the sign of a good painting like that, Dud, with their backs towards you, is if the bottoms follow you around the room. If it’s a good painting, the bottoms would follow you around the room.

D: Will they?

P: Yeah.

D: So I’ll test it then.

P: You go and have a look.

D: Alright. I’ll go on up and see if they…..

P: They won’t bloody budge, I’ll tell you that mate.

D: Course I can’t look directly at it. Otherwise, you know, you’ll know I’m looking and they’d get all cagy. I’ll… it’ll be fine.

P: Are they moving, Dud?

D: I think they’re following me, Pete.

P: I don’t think they are, Dud.

D: I reckon they are, Pete.

P: No, those bottoms aren’t following you around the room: your eyes are following the bottoms around the room.

D: Same thing, innit?

P: Course it isn’t. There’s a good deal of difference between followed by a bottom and you following a bottom. Totally different!

pete and dud 5

“Ooooh! It’s flashing all over the place. It’s coming after you, Dud.”

The camera dollies towards the bathers and then, after a dissolve, the sketch concludes with a close-up of the bathers. Off screen, we hear Pete and Dud resolving to meet elsewhere in the gallery: “See yer in the Dutch masters.” In the sketch, the painting seems about as real as the “National Gallery” surrounding it. Looking a little too small and sporting a different frame from the one we see in the British Pathé newsreel, it’s presumably a photographic copy. Did Philip and George welcome the kind of attention that Pete and Dud were bringing to the National Gallery’s recent purchase? I doubt it.

Fifty years later, what would Pete and Dud make of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If? They would certainly have to come up with a different sort of test to establish whether or not is a good painting, let alone worth £13.5 million. The landscape is sadly devoid of both eyes and bottoms.

L'Estaque with view of the Chateau d'If (393x500)

In a future post I’ll say more about the landscape and the chances of Britain coming up with enough money to keep it in the country.

Questions, comments, corrections? Contact me here.



13 ways of looking at Giacomo Balla’s “The Hand of the Violinist”

In a recent exam, I asked my student to attempt to identify an unknown work of art. The work in question was an oil painting, Giacomo Balla’s Hand of the Violinist (1912)–or a slightly cropped version of it. Wouldn’t do to show the artist’s signature at the very bottom of the work!

Balla, Hand of the Violinist, 1912.

Balla, Hand of the Violinist, 1912.

I typically ask my students to make educated guesses concerning the artist, date, medium, and the “subject or type of subject matter.” Most do very well, but this time the subject matter proved much trickier than I had envisaged. Most correctly identified a violin and/or the hand of a violinist. But many did not.

Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns

Here, then, are thirteen ways of looking at Balla’s Hand of the Violinist. They range from the dead-on to the what-the-heck.

“A man playing the violin (or his arm anyways)… the violin is drawn multiple times, rising from the middle up to the left margin of the work, becoming ‘clearer’ as it does so. The hand also clears as it moves up, its fingers crisscrossing multiple times as the multiple perspectives from different moments in time overlap in his wrist.”

“The subject matter appears to be stringed instruments. A violin is either being brought up or put down. The rest of the painting emulates the vibrations of strings, almost as if there is a harp in between the viewer and the violin.”

"Almost as if there is a harp..."

“Almost as if there is a harp…”

“Looks like the subject matter is the dynamism of someone playing the guitar—the beginnings of the interest in cinema, study of motion… To be moving around this much, the upbeat music must have been what influenced him.”

“Byzantine theme.”

the-hand-of-the-violinist-1912.jpg!HD, detail 5

“Like a fiery setting sun…”

“I’m not sure about the subject matter, kind of looks like a fiery setting sun.”

“The image kind of looks like a duck flying but it definitely portrays motion.”

the-hand-of-the-violinist-1912.jpg!HD, detail 3

“Kind of looks like a duck”

“When I first look at it, it looks like an abstract painting. Then I squint I can see there are dogs lined up on the track as they are [illegible] to race. Some have their heads down and some have their heads up. The gold makes it hard to tell what’s happening in the foreground.”

“Subject matter is difficult–maybe it is a dog of some sort or a farming field.”

“It appears to show someone working in a field—perhaps a farmer of some sort.”

A figure running diagonally?

A figure running diagonally?

“This unknown seems to test the boundaries of time in space by depicting what looks to be a figure running diagonally from the top left to bottom right.”

“A war piece; I say this because the picture looks as if it’s a struggle between some people which puts me at a mind of war.”

“You can see in the painting what seems to be praying hands and what seems to be people dancing within the background. The hands also seem to be reaching for something, so instead of praying, they’re grasping for the dancing figure infused into the painting.”

“It is of folded and unfolded hands, unfolding”


So what do you see in Balla’s painting? Click here to comment.

Mollie Molesworth Updates

After a couple of quiet years, things are beginning to happen again with Mollie Molesworth. (Click here for more about Mollie.)

We (meaning my family and I) are beginning to plan for an exhibition of her work in the summer of 2016, which will also give me a welcome excuse to go home. By my reckoning, this will be the first show devoted to Mollie’s work since October 1930, when she exhibited at Walker’s Galleries, New Bond Street, London.

Since I may well end up writing something to go along with this exhibition, I decided to create some other excuses to think about her life and work. These things will, I hope, feed off each other.

So I’ve just written a paper proposal on Mollie for the next SECAC conference, which will be taking place in Pittsburgh this October. I submitted my proposal to a panel that seems tailor-made for Mollie: “Transnational Ambitions: Women Artists in Europe and America, 1865-1945.” It’s hard to predict how people will react to a pitch about an “unknown” artist, so fingers crossed.

And on that topic, kudos goes to the Mississippi University for Women, my university’s neighbouring institution. They approached me early in the semester about contributing to their Diane Legan Howard Art History Lecture Series. I immediately accepted and then we began to bandy possible subjects back and forth. Many of the usual suspects were among the names I mentioned: Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Caillebotte, and Virginia Woolf. But I tossed out Mollie’s name, too, and was very happy that they took the risk and let me talk about her.

Here I am in full lecturing mode. (For more about the talk, click here.)

    Lecturing at the Mississippi University for Women, 16 April 2015

Lecturing at the Mississippi University for Women, 16 April 2015 (photo by Megan Bean)


This must be the first lecture that’s been given in the States about Mollie. I trust it won’t be the last.


Introducing Scott McCloud

One of the best things about being a professor? Getting to meet scholars, authors, and artists you’ve long admired.

Cassie Hester: Scott McCloud Poster (based on art from McCloud's Understanding Comics)

Cassie Hester: Scott McCloud Poster (based on art from McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

Yesterday, the comics artist and theorist Scott McCloud was on campus, along with his lovely wife, Ivy. I was lucky enough to spend some time with them, and also had the honour of introducing Scott before his talk.

I thought I’d reproduce my remarks here.

Scott McCloud’s new and wonderful graphic novel, The Sculptor, follows the fortunes of David Smith. This is a David Smith who is not that David Smith–not the famous American 20th-Century sculptor whose works can be found in MoMA, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern. Rather, he is just David Smith, a young sculptor who, it so happens, shares his name and vocation with that other guy. And, as we discover, they both share the name with a whole herd of other David Smiths. The phone directory, which David Smith consults, confirms the unsettling news.

You should, of course, buy a copy of The Sculptor after today’s talk, and immediately increase its value by asking its author to sign the words “Scott McCloud” within it. I am here to say a few words about this Scott McCloud. For he is not, let me be clear, the bassist-slash-musician Scott McCloud, or the Scott McCloud from Spring Valley High School, and nor is he Scott McCloud the tow truck driver from Accurate Auto Attention. (Thank-you, internet, for the research assistance.)

Today we will be lucky enough to listen to another Scott McCloud—one of the comic world’s foremost practitioners and thinkers. He is, among other things, the author of gripping and beautiful stories, like the Zot! comics and The Sculptor; he is an explorer and champion of webcomics and of the “infinite canvas;” he is one of the creators of the 24-Hour Comic, in which certifiably insane artists attempt to make a 24-page comic book in a day; he is the editor of the Best American Comics: 2014; and he is the author of the trilogy Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics, three brilliant and mind-opening books that use the language of comics to explore the comics world.

Understanding Comics turned me onto comics. It taught this art historian that comics are an art form, too, and that I should pay attention to them and teach them. In the book, Scott McCloud (and his cartoon alter-ego) provided me with a model for the kind of lecturer I wanted to be: instructive, philosophical, and serious, yet also engaging, funny, entertaining, and generous.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never managed to live up to this. But I did somehow persuade the authorities to allow me to teach a class on comics and the graphic novel. When I set my students Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, I know that this is a book that will speak to them. It’s a book they read and reread—a book that changes them. And many of these students are, I note, here today to experience, at long last, the real McCoy.

All the other Scott McClouds are, I’m sure, very fine Scott McClouds, but if you were to ask them today “Are you that Scott McCloud?” they would, I like to imagine, be obliged to say: “No. I’m here. And he’s giving a talk at Mississippi State.”

So without further ado, please join me in giving a warm welcome to Mr Scott McCloud.


Photo by: Megan Bean


Suffice to say, it was a wonderful day and Scott’s talk left the audience buzzing and, as it happens, thinking about monkeys.


super professor monkey

Want to comment? Click here.

4/2/2015: Hels, from Art and Architecture, mainly, writes: “You acknowledged the issue with comics and academe clearly. “Understanding Comics turned you onto comics. It taught this art historian that comics are an art form, too, and that you should pay attention to them and teach them”. Even then you still had to “somehow persuade the authorities to allow you to teach a class on comics and the graphic novel”.

Has not it ever been so! Proper art history dealt with paintings, sculpture and architecture! Decades ago when I was wanting to write a post-graduate thesis on Huguenot silver art during the late 17th century, I even found it difficult to find a supervisor within the Art History Dept at my uni.

Comics? I think I would never have found a supervisor back then!





Seeing and Being Seen at the Sargent Exhibition

The Sargent exhibition is wonderful. That at least was what I heard repeated again and again by the close-packed spectators jostling through the galleries at Burlington House. “The extraordinary number [of works]! That’s what one is so impressed by…” (Roger Fry, “Sargent as seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition of his Works, 1926, and in the National Gallery.”)

The opening of a John Singer Sargent exhibition in London–the critically acclaimed Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends–has sent my thoughts back to my great aunt, Mollie Molesworth. Admittedly, it takes little for my mind to stray in her direction but, in this case, I have good reason.


smaller for web (544x800)

Daisy Day, Portrait of Mollie Molesworth


In the autumn of 1925, just a few months after Sargent’s death, the eighteen-year old Mollie enrolled in the Wimbledon School of Art, South London. While there, she began to fill a series of small sketchbooks with drawings and watercolors. The books form a kind of visual diary of her life as a student. The subjects in them vary widely and include anatomical sketches, drawings of plaster casts, notes from lectures, illustrations for poems or stories, memory sketches, travel observations, and vignettes of life in and around London.

In the last of these categories we can place a page from her notebook “IV,” containing material from December 1925 to May 1926. At the top of the perforated page is a laconic caption: “seen at Sargent Exhibition–.”


Mollie Molesworth, Page from sketchbook IV, early 1926

Mollie Molesworth, Page from sketchbook IV, early 1926


Mollie draw the sketch at the Royal Academy of Art, and the current Sargent exhibition seems positively modest in scale compared to the show she had seen there, the Exhibition of Works by the Late John S. Sargent, R.A. Running from January 14 to March 13, 1926, Mollie probably attended the show in late January or early February, judging from the dates recorded elsewhere in the same sketchbook.


Royal Academy, John Singer Sargent Exhibition, 1926, layout of galleries

Royal Academy, John Singer Sargent Exhibition, 1926, layout of galleries


The exhibition consisted of over 600 works of various media divided between a dozen rooms. (All those who complain of the size of today’s blockbusters, take note!) In the exhibition’s official installation photographs, which can be viewed here, we see empty rooms and empty benches.


Grove, Son and Boulton, Installation photograph of Gallery II during the exhibition 'Exhibition of Works by the late John S. Sargent, R.A. ', 1926

Grove, Son and Boulton, Installation photograph of Gallery II during the exhibition ‘Exhibition of Works by the late John S. Sargent, R.A. ‘, 1926. Click here for more installation photographs.


It is an emptiness prescribed by the function of the photographs, which is to document clearly the impressive and tightly packed display. Here, Sargent’s paintings, and especially his portraits, dominate the rooms. Mollie, in sharp contrast to these photographs, concentrates on the gallery-goers and their experiences. Perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer number of images in the show, she eventually turned her back on them. This is the “Sargent Exhibition” sans Sargents.

Possibly, there is a note of irony in Mollie’s caption, a sense that it was easier to see the people than the pictures. Seen at Sargent Exhibition?


47, Seen at Sargent Exhibition (800x692)


Mollie fills her page with two distinct groups of figures on her vertically oriented sheet of paper. On the top half, we see five figures, who, perhaps, have been observed separately and then fitted together on the page: a woman in a hat and coat holding a lorgnette; a man consulting a book (the exhibition catalogue, perhaps); a second woman, wearing a tightly fitted and fashionably cut coat; and, with their backs to us, a guardian and child. The former’s umbrella, along with the other coats and jackets, serve to remind us that this was a winter exhibition.


47, Seen at Sargent Exhibition, top figures (800x588)


Below these figures, Mollie sketched a group of four “close-packed” gallery goers. One infers that they are sitting on the same unseen gallery bench. The general shift on the page from action (above) to rest (below) hints at the physical demands a sizable exhibition inevitably exerts on its visitors. Drawn more rapidly, with a lighter touch and less detail, the seated group are nevertheless more compositionally balanced. Two of them, facing outwards and shown in profile, hold echoing poses; they bracket two central figures, who look towards us. Indeed one looks directly towards us through her lorgnette.

Quite possibly she is the same woman we encountered above, now threatening to observe the observer. The Sargent Exhibition, Mollie Molesworth’s sketch reminds us, was a thing to see, but also somewhere to be seen.


47, Seen at Sargent Exhibition, detail


The magnitude of Sargent’s achievement and output, impressive though it was, may also have been daunting to a young woman at the beginning of her own career. Even though she declines to draw directly after his art, Mollie’s drawings indicate that she was certainly involved in a dialogue with Sargent’s example. Not only does she depict people who, like herself, have come to look at his art; she does so with a sharp eye for the way people present themselves socially, through their fashion choices and through their body language. These are also, of course, important aspects of figure painting and portraiture.

If Mollie didn’t realize this already, then John Singer Sargent’s art was there to confirm the fact.


sargent catalog, p88

Sargent, The Misses Hunter, 1902, as reproduced in the 1926 Royal Academy catalogue

Comments or questions? Contact me and I’ll add them to the end of this post.

4/9/2015: Monica Bowen (of Alberti’s Window fame) comments:

It’s fun that you can connect with your own family and family history through this post! When I think of paintings by Sargent, I often think of familial connections, since he often painted group portraits of family members (such as “The Misses Hunter” included in your post). Just recently I saw Sargent’s famous painting of sisters (“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”) at the MFA:


Anyhow, your post, which is about your own familial relation, seems fitting to me when thinking about Sargent’s depictions of families.

Taking the Mickey: Censoring Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen”

[This post records my contribution to Banned Book Week, which was delivered at MSU’s Mitchell Library as part of a faculty read-out. My thanks to Rachel Cannady for the invitation and for organizing and chairing the session.]

Banned Books Week Read-Out at MSU's Mitchell library

Yours truly at MSU’s Banned Books Week Read-Out  (Grisham Room, Mitchell Memorial Library)

Unlike almost all of my fellow presenters today, I have the luxury of being able to read you the entirety of my story. Ideally we’d have the book between us and we’d turn the pages together. Alas, powerpoint and digital projection will have to do. I’ll show the book double-page by double-page, and a digital “wipe” effect will be our page turn. Even if we’ll miss the reaching out, the touch of the paper, the breath of displaced air, and the gentle crackle of the turn, something of the revelation of the fresh page will, I trust, survive. Hands, mouth, eye… touch, voice, brain—such is the gloriously sensuous world of the picture book. Nobody has created and charted this terrain better than Maurice Sendak.

So without further ado, I give you In the Night Kitchen.

[Dear blog reader, in lieu of my own voice, I can give you something better. Click here to see a video of James Gandolfini reading the story.]


Mickey, dressed and undressed

Yes, I have heard of Mickey. Too often, and especially at this time of year, what I hear involves censorship. What’s all the fuss? There are the usual stories of the book being removed from libraries, and of copies being bought en masse from bookshops, in an attempt to take them out of circulation. (Some people, let it be noted, really need that ECON 101 class.) Mostly, there are tales of a subtler and more insidious form of censorship—an expurgation of the offending detail. For, as a character, Mickey comes fully endowed, endowed (certainly) with fun derring-do, with inventiveness, and also showing moments of testiness, doubt, and swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

But I’ll be blunt: like almost all boys (and naked boys especially) Mickey has a penis. To be sure, it’s a modestly-sized and apparently well-behaved penis, but it’s a penis nonetheless. And though it only appears in about five of the book’s panels, to the censorious mind it may as well be everywhere. In the Night Kitchen has been reduced to a cock-and-balls story. And though Mickey also has a backside, this apparently only bothers a subsection of the offended.

Our subtler censors acknowledge the merits of Sendak’s book in unexpected ways. As we are about to see, they have devoted time and labour to the job of rectifying Sendak’s “lapses” precisely so that the book might stay on the shelves, albeit in an altered and diminished form.

So let the wild fashion rumpus begin!


Mickey number 1 is wearing the very latest in cobalt-blue swimming trunks—useful for the child who insists on swimming in milk.

78662While this little Mickey’s fetching briefs nicely complement his unruly shock of black hair.

7093296881_29003e966b_oOur third Mickey is trying to “make it work” with a white-out diaper, complete with fastener.

10706318_10204982208498863_1311719033_nAnd our final Mickey has donned a sloppily constructed and semi-transparent paper slip, which—truth be told—seems only to encourage us to look further. As Sendak himself has noted, sometimes such “quaint quickie briefs are downright kinky.” Case in point!

(An aside: even google managed to fudge Mickey’s nudity in a otherwise charming animated doodle they made in honour of Sendak. We see Mickey jumping from the plane and into the bottle, where he disappears into the opaque milk, never to emerge again. Given the long history of discomfort with Mickey’s nudity, this appears to be a case of bottling out.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that however fine these unknown artists are, not one of them improves upon Sendak’s art.I rather wish that they had invested in a copy of the “Coloring Book” version of In the Night Kitchen, where they could have embellished Sendak’s art ad infinitum.

Instead, these additions stick out and are not all-of-a-piece with the rest of Sendak’s exquisitely colored world. This repeats the self-defeating logic of censorship, which tends to draw our attention to the censored object, rather than away from it. Mark Twain comments on this phenomenon in A Tramp Abroad­, while considering the statues of Rome and Florence. “These works,” he notes “…. stood in innocent nakedness for ages [but] are all fig-leaved now…. Nobody noticed their nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help noticing it now, the fig-leaf makes it so conspicuous.”

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo's David, V&A Museum, 1857

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David, V&A Museum,  circa 1857

Stephen Colbert put his finger on these matters (aesthetic integration, censorship, attention) during an interview with Sendak. Playing the role of outraged moralist, Colbert produced a copy of In The Night Kitchen that had had all the offending parts cut out in neat circle…. only to be collected in a zip-lock bag.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

As the Encyclopedia of Censorship summarizes the matter, the chief charges leveled against In the Night Kitchen are that the book desensitizes “children to nudity.” “… If nudity is acceptable in a kindergarten children’s story,” worries a concerned source, “how can I teach my children that Playboy is unacceptable?” One thing leads quickly to another and, before you can say “slippery slope,” we find claims like this: “children are taught their private parts are private. This book is contrary to this teaching.”

It is inconvenient for these critics that the structure of the narrative underlines the fact that Mickey is usually dressed and, indeed, that this is the normal state of affairs. His nudity accompanies his free-floating journey into the dream world of the night kitchen, where the usual rules are suspended. Concealing Mickey’s nudity both dilutes dream logic, where nudity often plays an important role, and interferes with an important and delightful sequence in the story: Mickey’s progression from blue pajamas, to nudity, to a sticky romper suit of partly cooked batter, to this suit’s milky disintegration and a return to nudity, to the security of a blanket, before finally ending up back in those same blue pajamas.

Mickey's Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Mickey’s Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Big Mickey and the breeches

To an art historian, all these unwarranted and ham-fisted interventions bring to mind a story about the biggest Mickey of them all: Michelangelo. Famously, soon after the artist’s death, his Last Judgment was subject to an aggressive cover-up campaign; draperies were painted over the genitals and backsides of many figures.Daniele da Volterra, the artist responsible for many of these additions promptly acquired the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-maker”).

Figures from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

Figures from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

But the potential problem had been recognized three decades earlier, when Michelangelo was still painting the work. Giorgio Vasari tells the story:

When Michelangelo had completed about three quarters of the work, Pope Paul went to see it, and Messer Biagio da Cesena, the master of the ceremonies, was with him, and when he was asked what he thought of it, he answered that he thought it not right to have so many naked figures in the Pope’s chapel. This displeased Michelangelo, and to revenge himself…. he painted him [Cesena] in the character of Minos with a great serpent twisted round his legs.


Vasari omits to mention exactly what the snake is doing to Minos-slash-Cesena: you can see for yourself that the punishment fits the crime. And though I certainly wouldn’t want to consign Mickey’s censors to hell, let alone subject them to this particular torment, I wish I could have magically shown them Michelangelo’s figure just before they set about “correcting” Sendak’s work.

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind!

Published in 1970, two years before I was born, I somehow missed In the Night Kitchen as a child. Mickey caught up with me much later, when I was spending an inordinate amount of time reading to my own kids. This, I discovered, is one of the pleasures of parenting: you suddenly have permission to revisit your favorite childhood books, as well as hunting down newer books or new-to-you books. Children will insist on having the same books read to them again and again. So, from the adult reader’s point of view, there’s a simple test of quality: a good children’s book is one that hasn’t driven you mad after, say, three dozen readings.

Sendak’s book passes this test with flying colours, and I want to mention just a few of the reasons why I love this book, and indicate some of the ways it has stimulated me aesthetically and intellectually. To do so is, in part, a way of resisting the impulse to censor, which insists on a partial reading of the book at the expense of all other responses.

milk in the batter

For starters, take Sendak’s language, which is simply fun to read, especially out loud. With its alliteration, rhymes, and rhythms, there’s a musicality to his words, as though they are aspiring to song or to jazz. Reveling in its own riffs, the book’s plot seems to emerge out of verbal playfulness: Mick and Milk, Mickey and milky, Mickey’s way and the milky way, Mickey the milkman, and even—perhaps—the idea of slipping a Mickey (to add something that really shouldn’t be there).

img011 - Copy

The story is also an elegant homage to Winsor McCay, one of the founding figures of modern comics, and particularly to MacCay’s greatest creation, Little Nemo. Both Nemo and Mickey are boys whose dream adventures begin and end in bed. Sendak uses the visual language McCay helped to invent and adapts it to the picture book format.

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Consider, for example, the brilliance with which Sendak handles the motif of rising and falling objects. As Mickey emerges out of bed, he tumbles from one double page to the next. At the same time we immediately understand that, as we are turning the first few pages, we are also falling between three floors—a descent only completed when our battered hero is dispatched into the “Mickey Oven.”

The rest of the book spins an intricate web of further ups and downs.Mickey jumps down into bread dough while the moon ascends, and his yeasty plane rises up as the moon descends.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Then—playing the cockerel—he heralds the rising sun and slides down the milk bottle. But where does he land up as he escapes through the floor of the Night Kitchen? Back at the top of his bedroom—a space that by all accounts should be some three stories above him.The ending of the book continues the motion established in the first few pages, and if we combine the opening and closing sequences, as though turning them into a single page from a  comic book, we get a clear sense of the beautifully paradoxical world that Sendak has created.

In the Night Kitchen: Three double pages as a single page.

Three double pages turned into one page.

The night kitchen is below Mickey and above him; he is in the night kitchen and the night kitchen is in him. As an object set into motion, Mickey finally comes to rest. Sendak, as they say in gymnastics, helps him stick his landing.img036 - Copy (539x640)Through his beautiful handling of word and image—where each has its own appeal, and one adds to the other—Sendak creates something wonderful and catalytic. To paraphrase William Blake:

There is an art of words
And an art of picturing
And there is an art of arts
In which these two arts sing.

In the Night Kitchen is both a book about a dream and the stuff that dreams are made of.



When I agreed to give this talk, I decided to check up on the Mickey in our own library—just to see how he was faring. There’s good news and bad news. The good is that no Mickey has been tampered with; the bad is that there is no copy of the book in the MSU library system, excepting a copy in the Meridian campus. So since, like morning cake, we need more of Mickey not less of him, I would like to finish today by donating a copy of In the Night Kitchen to the library.


MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library, and the inside cover of my In the Night Kitchen gift (now accessioned)

But if anyone meddles with this Mickey…. well I won’t hesitate to summon Michelangelo and beg him to go and mess with their dreams.


[Send comments, questions, and cake to bharvey@caad.msstate.edu]


Numbering Cézanne’s Blues

Tori Amos has a question for us, and she asks it twice in her recent song 16 Shades of Blue, once at the beginning of the track and again at the end: “Before you drop another verbal bomb / Can I arm myself with Cézanne’s sixteen shades of blue?”

Go ahead, I say. (You can listen to Amos’s song here.)


Why Sixteen?

But then—as a a chronic art history pedant—I toss a rather literal-minded question of my own back at her. Why sixteen shades of blue? Why not, say, sixteen hundred? Or infinite shades of blue? When he described Cézanne’s palette, Emile Bernard mentioned just three basic blues: cobalt, ultramarine, and Prussian. All of the other blues in Cézanne’s oil paintings derive from these.

So where does Amos’s number come from? The singer explained her lyric in a conversation with The Irish Times. She describes looking at Cézanne’s The Black Clock:

Rhythms and music started happening in my head,” she nods. “Then I began reading that Rilke would say that he [Cézanne] would paint in at least 16 shades of blue at times” (my italics).


Cezanne, The Black Clock

Cézanne, The Black Clock

In a song about time and aging, Amos’s allusions to The Black Clock–a clock without hands–are especially apt and layered: “If the clocks are black / absorbing everything but / a remembering / how we made it that / clocks are black.” But to return from black to blue: What is this Rilke reference Amos mentions in her interview?

The Rilke Connection

In 1907, the year after Cézanne’s death, Rilke had been in Paris, where he saw the Cézannes included in the Salon d’Automne. He described his responses to these in a famous series of letters to his wife, Clara, and after Rilke’s death these letters were collected in his Briefe über Cézanne (1952).

I’d read the English translation of this book, so assumed that this is where I’d previously come across the vaguely familiar sounding phrase “sixteen shades of blue.” I’d been meaning to reread Rilke’s thoughts on the artist and now had an excuse to do so.

There are, it turns out, plenty of mentions of blue in Rilke’s letters, but nowhere does he explicitly link the colour to the number sixteen. In her interview, Amos’s language implies that she had been somebody writing about Rilke, rather than Rilke himself (“I began reading that Rilke would say….”). And, sure enough, a little googling took me to Alex Danchev’s recent biography of Cézanne. “According to Rilke,” Danchev writes, “Cézanne used at least sixteen shades of blue” (364).


He lists them:

Some of them are familiar (sky blue, sea blue, blue-green), but for the most part these were no ordinary blues. Among his blues: a barely blue, a waxy blue, a listening blue, a blue dove-gray, a wet dark blue, a juicy blue, a light cloudy blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a self-contained blue, and a completely supportless blue.

This is beautiful, heady stuff. Many of these phrases refer either to Cézanne’s art in general or to specific paintings. Thus Rilke uses “thunderstorm blue” in his description of The Black Clock: “Its inward carmine bulging out into brightness provokes the wall behind it to a kind of thunderstorm blue, which is then repeated, more deeply and spaciously, by the adjoining gold-framed mantelpiece mirror” (88).


Cézanne, The Black Clock (detail)

But there’s a problem with Danchev’s list: though all Rilke’s blues appear in his Briefe über Cézanne, not all of them refer to Cézanne’s paintings. His “completely supportless blue,” “barely blue,” “blue dove-gray,” and “Egyptian shadow-blue” can all be found in descriptions of Paris; and while his “waxy blue” refers to “Pompeiian wall paintings,” his “wet dark” and “self-contained” blues describe not Cézanne’s colour but Van Gogh’s.

Upon closer inspection, Danchev’s sixteen items should be just nine or so. He, along with other writers, has perhaps taken his theme from Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, whose foreword to Briefe über Cézanne compiles all these references to blue in a paragraph. Petzet sees them as evidence of the poet’s “tenacious struggle for the utmost precision” (xix-xx). They are not, surely, just different shades of blue (as though each refers to a specific pigment or mixture of pigments) so much as different and imaginative ways of describing the experience of the colour (or colours) in artworks and elsewhere.


Why Not Sixteen?

I should put my art historical pedantry to one side for a moment and admit that there’s something about the number sixteen that makes me glad Amos chose it. In 16 Shades of Blue an archetypal number collides with an archetypal colour (or feeling). Sweet mixes with sad: no wonder it’s not the first song to have this title. But while Johnny Cymbal’s 16 Shades of Blue (1964) itemizes the sixteen reasons a girl has to be blue on her sixteenth birthday, Amos addresses aging in a more personal and caustic manner. She, too, connects a landmark birthday with a colour or shade: “You say ‘get over it, if 50 is the new black / hooray this could be your lucky day.’”

Finally, there’s this morsel of Cézannian arcana. In French, sixteen (seize) sounds like the first syllable of “Cézanne”, and the family name seems to have been a topic of amusement to the people of Aix-en-Provence. Punningly, Céz-anne could be converted into seize ânes or “sixteen donkeys.” The artist who painted the “thunderstorm blues” of The Black Clock could scarcely escape the number.

It continues to follow him around.




Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life (Pantheon, 2012)
Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne (University of California Press, 2001)
Sidney Geist, Interpreting Cézanne (Harvard University Press, 1988)
Rainer Maria Rilke (translation and foreword: Heinrich Wiegand Petzet), Letters on Cézanne (North Point Press, 2002)

Star Wars, the Hasan remix



Mashups, or how I became Ben Harvey Kenobe

I first watched Star Wars in 1977. But I was only cast in Star Wars some thirty-four years later.

It was the late Hasan Niyazi–the art history blogger and brains behind Three Pipe Problemwho informed me of my new role. In June 2011, some two years into our friendship, he prefaced an email to me with this note: “(n.b. As a mad Star Wars fan, I must admit a great thrill in knowing an older, wiser Ben to seek rational counsel from!)” My knowledge of Star Wars was and remains limited, but even I got the allusion. I was Obi-Wan. Gasp!

Official confirmation of his decision arrived rapidly, in his next email, when he sent me a picture of my new persona, “just in case”, Hasan explained, “your kids get a kick out of it.” Let us call this Ben composite “Ben Harvey Kenobe” or, as Hasan put it in his file name for the JPeg, “BEN as Jedi.”

But this wasn’t all. Oh no. My new avatar needed to come alive, needed to be inserted into a full-blown narrative, and so his email also included a second and larger image (file name: “Ben Composite”). Here it is.

Ben Composite

Here I was, a Jedi (presumably a dead Jedi, at that) offering disembodied advice to Luke Skywalker as he fulfills his mission to blow up the Death Star. That’s weird enough. Weirder still is the fact that outer space has been replaced by pictorial space. You may recognized it as a section from Monet’s well-known work Impression, Sunrise (1872).

Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

But wait a minute. How did any of this come to be? What did Star Wars mean to Hasan? Why–of all things!–a Monet? And why, apart from an accident of naming (and, perhaps, my English accent) did I get cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi?

Let me explain.


Star Wars (The Hasan Remix), episodes I, II and III

A long time ago (1980) in a galaxy far far way (Melbourne, Australia) Hasan Niyazi encountered Star Wars. He watched it on Australian TV and immediately became, as he put it, a “giddy Star Wars fan.” When, decades later, Hasan commissioned a portrait of himself, he asked the artist to include an architectural reference to Jabba’s Palace in Star Wars.

Mia Araujo: Portrait of Hasan Niyazi (l); Jabba's Palace (r)

Mia Araujo: Portrait of Hasan Niyazi (l); Jabba’s Palace (r)

Hasan elaborated on what Star Wars meant to him in a letter to Sedef Piker, a fellow blogger and member of the Turkish diaspora. “Star Wars”, he explained, “is essentially the story of a young person who lived very distant from the centre of everything he was interested in. A mixture of events and his own nature finally took him to a position of prominence, but with horrible obstacles, terrible paternal violence and constant conflict for believing in freedom. Yes – I know its just a ‘space movie’ but that is what Star Wars means to me and many in my generation!”

For Hasan, then, Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker and begins with “Episode IV” not “A Phantom Menace”. (Most children of the 1970s will breathe a sigh of relief.) But Hasan is only beginning to warm to his theme. The next paragraph in his letter to Sedef is decidedly less orthodox and more personal: “Everytime I faced something frightening when I was a little kid, telling myself ‘A jedi wouldnt be scared of this!’ would make me rush in head first. I have a similar demeanour now I guess, but I don’t need that catch cry–I just say ‘ben yapamazsam, kim yapacak?!’ and off I go.”

Hasan’s phrase is Turkish: “If I don’t do it, who will?!”

Now with his thoughts firmly on the motherland, he continues: “I think people with our cultural heritage respond to this type of mythos – and that is what it is – it must be said – our history is littered with individuals who seemed to have turned things by their sheer will and intelligence, from Sultan Mehmet II to Mustafa Kemal.  Star Wars seems to fit this perfectly. George Lucas, Star Wars creator was actually quite fond of Turkish history….”

To these two different remixes of the Star Wars “mythos” (one autobiographical, one cultural), we can add a third. This was the the version that included me.

Hasan Tweet, 13 Sep 2012

Hasan Tweet, 13 Sep 2012


The Rebel Alliance

Since 2009, when he had founded his popular art historical blog Three Pipe Problem, Hasan had been waging an art rebel’s battle against an empire of indifference–complacent professionals, inert institutions, and Art History itself. Here, after all, was an entire discipline that barely seemed to recognize the internet’s existence, let alone treat it as an adequate venue for art historical discourse. He so wanted to be part of the debate, but the debate always seemed to be happening elsewhere–in the lecture halls and conference rooms of academe, in expensive books and journals. Once again, Hasan found himself to be “very distant from the centre of everything he was interested in.”

He would prove that there was a different way of doing things, a more inclusive way. Since the rise of the internet was inexorable, he would eventually get his recognition and find himself at the center of the conversation. Art History would have to follow his example and move to his turf. Three Pipe Problem and Open Raphael Online would then be recognised as the models for a new kind of Art History. If Hasan didn’t do it, who would?

And off he went. He assembled a ragtag group of supporters: a princess here, a wookie there; a crackpot translator in Italy, some maverick academics sprinkled across the globe, and–in ever growing numbers–fans of his blog. They were here, there, and everywhere. Hasan communicated with them through Three Pipe Problem, in the comments sections of various blogs, in volleys of tweets, and in countless emails.


The Monet Connection

In June 2011, Hasan published two posts about about the BBC’s Fake or Fortune TV series. The episode in question featured a disputed Monet and thus piqued Hasan’s longstanding interest in connoisseurship and the methodology (or lack thereof) behind making attributions.

Hasan’s first post summarizes the episode, while his second deals with the program’s critical reception in the media. That would include social media, for he had exchanged some rather bad tempered tweets with Waldemar Januszczak, the art critic. Towards the end of his second post, Hasan characteristically looks for a silver lining. “Decades ago,” he notes, “such bickering would have occurred in a closed journal, seen only by a chosen few. Today, with the miracle of the web, we have professionals, pundits and punters spiritedly debating a topic in real-time across great distances.” The rebel alliance, that is to say, had been making gains.

Monet (?), Bords de la Seine à Argenteuil (Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil), 1875

As an art historian with a research interest in nineteenth-century French art, I fell into the category of “professionals,” and Hasan and I had been in touch during this affair. In a very minor way, I was giving him counsel. And it was when he asked for my impressions of his second post that he first referred to me as an  “older, wiser Ben.” Again, Hasan is identifying himself with Luke Skywalker. For who else would be seeking counsel from an older Ben? (And not that much older, I hasten to add. Just three years!)

My reply acknowledged the Obi-Wan reference, but then quickly shifted to more familiar territory. I told him that, in fact, there was one thing that bothered me about the post: the sulphurous colours of the Monet he had included, the Impression, Sunrise. (See, perhaps, the version in the top-left corner of the grid below.)

Fifty Shades of Monet: Google Image Search

Fifty Shades of Monet: Google Image Search

So I responded as follows. “One comment: Monet’s Impression: soleil levant. Anyhow, every time I see this painting reproduced it looks different. That said, the colours in the image you’ve chosen seem particularly ‘off.’ It looks like a scene from hell!” Ever responsive to feedback, Hasan swapped out the image for a better one and, by the reproduction, added a footnote concerning “[colour] variation in image reproductions, in print, online and on film…. This problem is exaggerated in impressionist works.” It was in his next email that he sent me the Death Star/Monet composite. The landscape in it served to reminder me of the piece of advice I had dispensed.

The image is also amusing. Hasan’s father was profoundly sick at this time, and absorbing himself in online activities offered Hasan some respite from this grim reality. “My writing is a bit serious at times,” he had recently told me, “but behind the scenes I am always having a giggle – life is too short. I also think when people take things too seriously it is not good for them. With everything that has been going on with my dad too, the occasional relief laughter brings is welcome.”

Author's tweet (retweeted by Hasan Niyazi): 6 Feb 2012

Author’s tweet (retweeted by Hasan Niyazi): 6 Feb 2012



The mashup also says a lot about how Hasan cultivated his friendships. I’ll readily admit that in my more ruthless moments I wondered exactly why I was spending so much time on somebody I had never met or even spoken to. But Hasan had a way of charming one with his long, courteous, and engaging missives. They felt a lot like old-fashioned letters disguised as emails. (In a quaint touch, he invariably signed off with the phrase “Kind Regards–H.”) Dealing with Hasan involved negotiating obligations and acts of reciprocation. You might spend a few minutes helping him out with something, but then receive an elaborate photo-shopped image in return, which, in turn, meant that it was hard to deny his next request. Invariably, detailed explanations would accompany his symbolic gifts.

Here, then, is how he explained his image to me:

From your blog/tweets, I know you like receiving artworks and postcards from your students. Whilst I may not be a student of yours, as a token of thanks for the time you have put into giving me an art historian’s account of what I am doing at 3PP [Three Pipe Problem], I thought you may like this ‘mashup’ – a composite of a German digital artist named Shasta, Monet, George Lucas and my meagre photoshop skills. As you were imparting advice on this recent Monet escapade, I imagined that scene from Star Wars during the trench run where Luke hears Ben’s voice telling him to calm down and focus.

I only recently noticed that Hasan uses similar language in the acknowledgment section of Three Pipe Problem. I am thanked there for my “wise counsel and calmly considered feedback.”


Hasan’s words return me to the words he included in his mashup, where we hear something beyond the obligatory swooshes of machinery and zaps of laser fire. It’s written in italics at the top of the piece, words I imagine spoken in Alec Guinness’s distinctive voice: “An elegant Art Historian, of a more civilised age.” The language is taken from the scene in Episode IV where Obi-Wan hands Luke “his father’s light saber… the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”

We may also hear other words, even though Hasan doesn’t directly quote them. For this is the scene where Obi-Wan returns to offer Luke some famous advice: “Use the Force, Luke!” Here’s how it appears in the script:

star wars script use the force luke

At the time I was amused and perhaps a little embarrassed at being inserted into Hasan’s Star Wars fantasies. After all, I didn’t identify strongly with Ben Kenobe. On revisiting this material–and perhaps paying it proper attention for the first time–I see how I missed the point. What strikes me now is the force of Hasan’s continued identification with Luke and how these episodes mattered much more to Hasan than they did to me. They mattered more to the impassioned outsider than the blasé professional.

I’m temperamentally allergic to finding lessons and drawing morals, but it’s possible that Hasan has provided me with some that I should not ignore. What are they? Care more. Be more passionate. Stretch yourself. Find battles that are worth fighting. At the same time, surround yourself with allies and seek their help and advice. In short, be less of a Ben and more of a Luke.

Finally, there’s this irony: in straying from the script and dying before me, we have effectively exchanged roles. Hasan has become my disembodied counselor.

I will listen out for his voice when, at last, I find myself entering the trenches. And then I will mutter to myself the only Turkish I know: “ben yapamazsam, kim yapacak?!”

If I don’t do it, who will?!



With thanks to Edward Goldberg, Solmaz Niyazi and Sedef Piker for all their help.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Hasan Niyazi. (Who else?) It was first posted on Raphael’s Birthday, 6 April 2014.

[Other posts paying tribute to Raphael and/or Hasan are collected at Three Pipe Problem, or you can follow the discussion on twitter using the hashtag #raphaelhasan.]