Archive for the ‘Art History’ Category

But not in my house!

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

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 ( 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 (

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.


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

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

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.



Mollie Molesworth Updates

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

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.


Seeing and Being Seen at the Sargent Exhibition

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

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.

Numbering Cézanne’s Blues

Monday, September 1st, 2014

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

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014



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.]

Cézanne Online

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Just a quick post to draw attention to three (or four) Cézanne-related thingummies on the web.

1. Modernist Games.

modernist games screen shot

The first is an open-access scholarly book,  Modernist Games: Cézanne and His Card Players. Drawing largely from the papers given at a conference about the Card Players in January 2011, this is the first publication in a new series, Courtauld Books Online. It includes an essay by a “big name”–T. J. Clark. (Read his “A House of Cards” here.) I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the book later, when I write about it for the SECAC Review, but I’ll say now that I welcome the fact that the Courtauld has committed to publishing high-quality material online. I hope other institutions follow suit.


2. Mont Sainte-Victoire.

screen shot of smart history

This one comes from the department of shameless self promotion. I’ve just written about one of Cézanne’s late, great paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the version in The Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can read my short essay here. This is my first contribution to SmartHistory, which aims to make “high-quality introductory art history content freely available to anyone, anywhere.” The choice of works was partly governed by the fact that the Philadelphia landscape is included in the syllabus of the Advanced Placement (AP) Art History course. It was fun to write for such a potentially large audience.


3. The Paintings of Paul Cézanne.

the paintings of paul cezanne

Finally, some really good news. An online Catalogue Raisonné of Cézanne’s oil paintings is in the works. It will go live on May 12th, and I assume will be accessed here. Anyone who has struggled with John Rewald’s patchy 1996 catalogue will breath a sigh of relief, as will those who can’t afford the $200 for the book. Instead, we’ll soon be able to use, for free, something that I expect will be much better. Kudos to Walter Feilchenfeldt, Jayne Warman, and David Nash for continuing Rewald’s legacy and bringing it into the digital age. You can read more about the project here.

As for updated and online catalogues of the artist’s water-colours and drawings, we’ll probably have to wait a lot longer for those. But a boy can dream, can’t he?


4. Cézanne Site/Non-Site.

site non site

And this just in via twitter. @Arunadsouza alerts me to the rather nice website accompanying the Cézanne Site/Non-Site exhibition at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.



Roger Fry’s Silence

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Just a quick note to say that one of my articles–‘The rest is silence: the sense of Roger Fry’s endings’–has recently been published. Better still, thanks to the Journal of Art Historiography, it’s available for free, and you can read it here.

Ramsey and Muspratt, Roger Fry, 1932, Bromide Print

Ramsey and Muspratt, Roger Fry, 1932, Bromide Print

Edited by Richard Woodfield, the journal is affiliated with the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute, where I first “converted” to art history. I delivered a version of my paper in New York this February, as part of Jeanne-Marie Musto’s CAA panel To what end? Eschatology in art historiography. Thanks to Jeanne-Marie and Richard for their roles in helping to make my paper, and the other papers from the panel, available to a much larger audience.

It’s great that there are now a number of peer-reviewed art history journals with open access policies. (I hope more follow suit.) Apart from the Journal of Art Historiography, another favourite is Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, which also has reliably good contributors and high quality content.

Farewell Hasan…

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Hasan Niyazi, the brains behind Three Pipe Problem, has died prematurely and unexpectedly. His loss is a great one for art-history bloggers and the online art-history community in general, and moving tributes have already been posted to him at Alberti’s Window, Giorgione et al, and Baroque Potion. I’m sure there will be many more.

I’m facing an imminent deadline at the moment but, in lieu of a proper tribute to Hasan, thought I could at least post this. It’s a letter of support I wrote for Hasan’s application for a CAA International Travel Grant, so apologies for its necessarily formal tone.

I began by describing my own online projects…

…. In pursuing these various projects, Hasan has offered me invaluable encouragement and practical support during a period when art historical institutions have often been slow to embrace the possibilities of the web.

Hasan is a unique and remarkable figure in the field. Despite having a career as a physiotherapist, he also manages to work on ambitious art historical projects, and has developed a distinctive art historical voice. This voice combines a number of Hasan’s qualities: his passion for art (particularly Renaissance art); his professional commitment to rigorous scientific methodology; and his desire to discuss art with as many people as possible. Unlike many professional art historians, he has a clear vision of how art history should and could be: rigorous, relevant, technologically sophisticated, and as widely accessible as possible.

This vision is certainly abundantly evident in Three Pipe Problem, but also in his extremely useful AHDB (Art & History: Site Database and Search). And once his Open Raphael project goes live, the full extent of Hasan’s achievements will become evident for all to see. It seems highly likely that this research tool, which synthesizes a wealth of information and makes it freely available to all, will become an essential tool for Raphael students and scholars. It will demonstrate what a web-based catalogue raisonné should be like. Incredibly, Hasan has done all of this with no institutional support, just his intelligence and a formidable work ethic.

Hasan’s blog posts from the recent Raphael conference in Madrid demonstrated how travel could enrich his art historical activities. They also indicated how he can use his blog to expand the “reach” of a conference far beyond the physical limits of its venue. Hasan would undoubtedly make similarly excellent use of the opportunity to travel from Melbourne in order to attend CAA 2013 in New York, should he be given the opportunity. Since they relate so closely to his projects, I would be particularly interested in his thoughts on the panel devoted to “the new connoisseurship,” as well as on those panels addressing “technical art history.”  Like several other art historians of my acquaintance, I am very much hoping to meet Hasan at CAA, so that we may continue in person conversations that have been initiated online and from afar.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions about Hasan and/or his application. He both thoroughly deserves a CAA International Travel Grant and would be a most enlightened choice of recipient.

Had Hasan’s application been successful, I would have met him in New York earlier this year. Alas, it was not to be. But I will treasure the email, twitter, and blog interactions that I did have with Hasan. He was a generous, intelligent soul, and he will not be forgotten.

Tweet for Hasan, 20 June 2013

Tweet for Hasan (one of many), 20 June 2013

The Ins and Outs of Banksy and Cezanne

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

No sooner do I blog about Cézanne’s letters than a certain street artist–Banksy by name–quotes from these very letters on his new website: By the looks of it, the site will cover his shenanigans in New York, where he will be for the next month. The street, the caption for the main image informs us, is in play. I’ll return to that image later.

banksyny page, with Cezanne quote circled.

Banksy announces his main theme at the top of the website: “better out than in.” It’s an expressionist’s manifesto (don’t bottle it up!) and a phrase I’ve always associated with belching. But it could also easily extend to other bodily acts. In a recent Los Angeles piece, Banksy links it to puking and gives the “out,” the floral vomit, a sculptural dimension.

Banksy, Better out than in, 2013

Banksy, Better out than in, 2013

Bansky’s “out” is also, of course, the art of the street, rather than the “in” of the studio (and by extension, the gallery and the museum). This brings us nicely to the quote he takes from Cézanne’s letters, where “outside” means landscape painting:

Cezanne quote from

Cézanne quote from

Banksy finds some kinship with the Nineteenth Century and a kind of historical justification for street art, but only by cheekily ripping the quote out of context. That’s part of the fun.

Scholastic aside: he uses the version of the quote given in John Rewald’s edition of the letters, rather than the one in Alex Danchev’s just-published version. (Heavens forbid that we might struggle with Cézanne’s French.) Here is the quote in a fuller context, as it appears in Danchev’s translation: “You know, all the paintings done indoors, in the studio, will never be as good as the things done outdoors. In showing outdoor scenes, the contrast between the figures and the ground are astonishing, and the landscape is magnificent. I see some superb things, and I must resolve to paint only out of doors.”*

Cézanne wrote the letter to Emile Zola and it’s dated 19 October 1866, which makes it a very early declaration of plein-air principles. The letter includes a number of pencil sketches of paintings Cézanne was then working on. One of the paintings, he explains, features two of their friends, “Marion and Valabregue leaving for the motif (a landscape of course).” Reproduced below is an oil sketch Cézanne made of the same subject.

Marion and Valabregue setting out for the motif, oil study

Cézanne: Marion and Valabregue setting out for the motif, oil study

Cézanne creates an origin story for landscape painting–the companionable departure of the well-equipped artists, the search for the motif, and the anticipated conversion of nature into paintings.

Banksy, too, makes his own kind of origin myth and one that likewise involves an act of male camaraderie, albeit now with a touch of illegality added. An old-timey street urchin helps his partner in crime reach for some incongruously modern equipment. We imagine the activation of the can and this spray will serve as the final proof of the adage. For, from the point of view of the street artist, aerosolized pigment is also “better out than in.”

Banksy, The Street is in Play

Banksy, The Street is in Play

*Mais, vois-tu, tous les tableaux faits à l’intérieur, dans l’atelier, ne vaudront jamais les choses faites en plein air. En représentant des scènes du dehors, les oppositions des figures sur les terrains sont étonnantes, et le paysage est magnifique. Je vois des choses superbes, et il faut que je me résolve à ne faire que des choses en plein air.