Sunday, August 28, 2016

ART: JD on Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden Of Earthly Delights" (c. 1490-1510)

JD explores the mystery of Bosch's painting:

By Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) - Galería online, Museo del Prado., Public Domain,
I found this on one of the BBC web pages about the painting "The garden of earthly delights" by Hieronymus Bosch:

It is mainly about a musical notation painted on the posterior of a naked body in the right hand panel of the triptych. The music was transcribed in 2014 by Amelia Hamrick, a music student at Oklahoma Christian University. Here is the music (played by Jim Spalink):

The convention among art scholars and critics is that the three panels of the triptych are read from left to right as Paradise; this world; a vision of hell. The music is in the panel showing hell but it doesn't sound hellish to me... quite the opposite in fact. But there is another, choral version of the same music which sounds much darker:

I have stood or sat in front of that painting many times in the Prado and it is baffling and fascinating. So what do I know about it? Well, I know that Phillip II acquired the painting at auction in 1591. He also owned this painting by Bosch:

By Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) or follower - : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain,
- which was used as a table top in his private rooms at El Escorial. They are both now on display in The Prado.

What does it all mean? Well, nobody seems to know. The medieval mind inhabited a very different universe. There are many theories; alchemical references, biblical references, hermetic references as well as the idea that Bosch was on a 'psychedelic trip' because at that time a great deal of the bread was contaminated with the ergot fungus. LSD is distilled from ergot so eating such bread could possibly induce similar effects. I am not entirely convinced by that last one.

Alchemical? Lots of books devoted to the idea but Adam McLean is less than convinced:

Christianity? Certainly Bosch was a devout Christian and the painting is believed to have been commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau, in or shortly after 1481, when he attended the Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece, this Order being a Roman Catholic Order of Chivalry

Another link from the BBC page is to art critic Kelly Grovier who points to the existence of an egg at the centre of the painting:

"To find it, one’s eyes need merely draw an ‘X’ from the four corners of the work and an egg marks the spot, smack before us at the dead centre of the painting. Suddenly, the tempestuous vision collapses into a mystical vanishing point. Through the timeless symbol of the unhatched egg, Bosch offers us a way out of his troubled work: the hope of a birth that’s evermore about to be." 

There are many instances of ostrich eggs hanging from the ceilings of cathedrals as well as in Mosques or Temples of other religions both east and west. There were still two hanging in Durham Cathedral as late as 1780.

The second painting mentioned above is called "The seven deadly sins" and is very explicitly Christian. It is painted in the form of an eye with the 'sins' arranged on the periphery. In the centre, in the pupil is a small painting showing Christ rising from the tomb. Around it are written the words 'Cave Cave Deus Videt' - "Take care, God is watching!" Note also the significance of placing Christ in the pupil of the eye. There are several Biblical references along those lines including Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8, Psalm 17:8, Proverbs 7:2.

Hermetic? Phillip and his two principal architects of the Escorial were very well versed in The Hermetica. The new palace of El Escorial was designed to be a replica of Solomon's temple so he and they would see something in the paintings which is now hidden to us with our different perceptions, education and experience.

It is worth pointing out that Phillip, like Bosch, was a devout Catholic but at that period people would not differentiate between Christianity and magic. Phillip's nemesis, Elizabeth of England, was of like mind. One of her most trusted advisors was the Magus John Dee.

I have been looking again at one of my books called "The Mercurian Monarch" and it occurred to me that this was an age when both Phillip of Spain and Elizabeth of England believed in the divine right of Kings as being very real. They believed in a divine succession through Adam, Moses and Solomon to themselves and thus had a direct connection to God which is why they felt able, even obliged, to defy ecclesiastical authority. (The king and queen on the chessboard rank higher than the bishops.)

The established Church itself was extremely hostile to any such heresy although looking at the Gothic Cathedrals or much of Renaissance art one wonders if such hostility was genuine.

I bought this book in the bookshop at El Escorial and it is extremely informative- (Originally published in English but I have never seen an English version.) The book is dedicated to Rudolf Wittkower, which brings me to another book I have with the title "Allegory and the Migration of Symbols" by Wittkower:

I looked through the last chapter "Interpretation of Visual Symbols" and it echoed the thoughts of Ernst Gombrich in his "Art and Illusion." What we see depends on perception and interpretation. Wittkower refers to the chronicles written by Marco Polo after his travels. He was widely denounced as a liar and a fantasist because those who read his stories had no concept of the things he described, they were unable to interpret his descriptions in any meaningful way because such descriptions were outwith their own experience. If you have never seen an elephant or a camel for example then you will regard a drawing of such as pure imagination or fantasy - or the product of a hallucination.

You might like to look at the illustrations from the "Livre des Merveilles", several of which are reproduced in Wittkower's book:

As you can see the landscapes are very stylised in the manner of Bosch and there are some very strange looking creatures in there too. Some of the images shown are of Marco Polo's book but, as the Wiki entry says, they should not be confused with Jean de Mandeville's book-

There is also the way in which the accepted meaning of symbols changes over time. The most obvious example is the swastika which is a symbol of good fortune in Tibet and parts of India but is now a symbol of evil in the western world.

Another and probably more serious handicap in trying to interpret and understand the painting came with the invention by Brunelleschi of single point perspective in architectural drawings and in paintings. This changed painting forever and also altered how we now look at not just paintings but the world around us. Via photography, cinema and television we have been subtly and unintentionally brainwashed into looking without seeing. We see paintings now as if through a window, it is 'framed' and therefore we are some how set apart from the scene; peeping through a keyhole as it were.

Over the years a few painters tried to highlight the absurdity of perspective; Piranesi, Hogarth, Picasso and Escher among them. Velazquez turned it around with his painting "Las Meninas" and El Greco ignored it altogether. So it is now very difficult and almost impossible to 'see' the painting in the way that Bosch and his contemporaries saw it.

Your best guide to what it all means comes from the American painter Frank Stella who said "What you see is what you see." In other words it depends on your own perception and an interpretation based on your own experience of life which is where education becomes a handicap rather than a help - anything other than the orthodoxy of received wisdom is regarded as heresy.

Make of it all what you will but always remember the famous phrase from the Tao Te Ching: "Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know" (Lao Tzu). That includes me, so what I have written above should be taken with a grain of salt. Ignore any and all experts. The best way to understand anything, anything at all is to work it out for yourself. Start with your intuition and filter that through your reason and you will arrive at something approximating to the truth.

Note: There is currently in the Prado, Madrid an exhibition of the paintings of Bosch. It ends on 25th September. Go and see it if you can!


References (other than those cited in the text):

1) "Architecture, Mysticism and Myth" by W.R. Lethaby, [1892]

2) "the apple of his eye"

3) "Hermetica" - by Walter Scott (Translator)

4) The Mercurian Monarch" by Douglas Brooks-Davies

5) Symbolism in chess

6) "Art and Illusion" - by E H Gombrich

7) Tao Te Ching

8) "The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral" by Louis Charpentier

9) "That's the Way I see It" - by David Hockney

10)"The Object Stares Back" - by James Elkins

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Night Is Music Night: The McGarrigles

A feast from JD:

Sackerson adds: The penultimate one makes my skin prickle - perhaps because of the harmonies of the sisters' voices as much as for the hymnal melancholy. But the LP I played until the grooves were pretty much worn through was "French Record" - the sequence on YouTube begins with this one:

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Who’s Queen Of The Castle? Chelsea Clinton Accepts Democratic Party Nomination

Pic source:

As multiple controversies continue to swirl around her mother despite the partisanship of most mainstream news media and Google’s search-engine-tweaking, Chelsea Clinton today stepped forward into the limelight and accepted the emergency renomination in her favour by the Democratic Party.

“This not only reaffirms the established hereditary principle in US politics,” commented a senior campaign official, “but it also recasts Donald Trump as the ‘dirty rascal’, if you know the old children’s game. I don’t see how that oaf can recover from this.”

A visibly distressed Trump has been urgently consulting with his lawyers on the application of the Salic Law to the American Presidency.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Night Is Music Night: The Dance Of Creation

JD celebrates:

Your musical offering for this week is a personal one as I reflect on things 'from this high hill of my old age' :)

The music of my youth, the music of my old age, the music of my soul: "I hear it in the deep heart's core."




"Nos cojimos de la mano, como los Druidas de Bretaña y Le pedimos a Dios o a los Dioses que esa danza de la felicidad. En la que estabamos immersos no terminase nunca en aquella fiesta final. Todos soplamos juntos por la pipa de la paz, De las Culturas y del Amor."- Carlos Nuñez *

Six this time - it could have been 600 or 6000! :)

* "Let us join hands like the Druids of Britain and ask God or the gods for the dance of happiness. The crowning celebration  in which we are immersed shall never end. Together let us all smoke the pipe of peace, culture and love."

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Smoking: could genetic testing help smokers' cause?

Genetic research holds out the hope that health advice and public policy could be targeted more precisely. The risks of smoking are not "one size fits all."

"Family, twin, and adoption studies also convincingly demonstrate a substantial genetic contribution to the development of addiction to nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drugs. Heritability estimates for nicotine, alcohol, and drug addiction are in the range of 50% to 60%." (1)

If this is so, then theoretically people could be genetically tested for their vulnerability to substance addiction and advised accordingly. And the others could continue in their habit, moderately reassured that they could stop if they so chose. 

Testing might also help with more precise information about health risks. A longitudinal study of male British doctors (2) suggests that the average reduction in life expectancy is 10 years, but "that is not to say that all such smokers died about 10 years earlier than they would otherwise have done: some were not killed by their habit, but about half were, thereby losing on average more than 10 years of non-smoker life expectancy. Indeed, some of those killed by tobacco must have lost a few decades of life." It may be possible to identify the ones who are most at risk of dying in their middle years.

The same study also suggests that smoking for a few years may not be significantly life-threatening. For those in the 25-34 age group - where smoking prevalence is highest (3) - if they give up during this time, their life expectancy is almost exactly the same as for never-smokers:

"Mortality in relation to smoking", etc. - Fig. 4 (selected area)

If potential smokers could be forewarned of their likelihood of developing an addiction, and of their chances of dying very early from diseases associated with the habit, then the life expectancy gap might be narrowed without blanket bans. 

Those who went ahead despite personalised warnings would at least be doing so on the basis of better information - and that then becomes a liberty issue, like hang-gliding (and cycling, the most dangerous form of transport).*

(1) "Genetic Vulnerability and Susceptibility to Substance Dependence" L.J. Bierut, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, February 2012 -
(2) "Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years' observations on male British doctors" Doll, Peto & Boreham, BMJ, May 2004 -
(3) ASH "Facts at a glance", June 2016 -

*I was wrong, I'm afraid. Motorcycling is worse: 1,789 KSI (killed or seriously injured) per billion vehicle miles vs. 1,036 for pedal cycles. 
I'm disappointed - I wanted something to get back at the Puritans of the road.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gaming Democracy

As a girl, Mother was a great reader. She would go to the glass-fronted book cabinet in the cigar-scented study and feel behind the rows for the good stuff father had hidden there, such as Madame Bovary: every system can be gamed.

She would also spend a lot of time in the school library. However, one day, she entered to find big gaps in the shelves: without warning, all the Jewish and socialist writers had been removed. The new government was cleansing the librosphere of ideological pollution: nothing was to seduce impressionable minds away from socially-agreed norms. This was, after all, the clean and progressive East Prussia of the 1930s.

Half a lifetime later, a classical student was in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, researching an incident in the Peloponnesian War. The index occupied a room on its own, full of massive volumes with pasted-in entries giving descriptions and locations of the millions of items. You felt you had arrived as a scholar, just lifting one of these, thumping it on the lectern and turning the crowded pages. Now, where was a map of the ancient harbour at Lesbos? Ah, here, coded with a Greek φ. He filled in the order slip, but was told he would have to wait for the senior librarian to come back from lunch. The time came, and my friend was taken to another room. There was the large brown envelope; the librarian snipped the corner and slid out the contents – “Lesbos: twelve unretouched photographs of lesbian love.” So that’s what the phi was for. Still, it was a publication, so it was stored, and could be consulted on request. That was liberalism in action.

Today, while Crown copyright libraries continue to grow like Topsy, ordinary public libraries are closing and selling off or throwing away their stock - but we have the Internet, accessible at all times. It is so great that more than ever, we need a librarian to guide us through its virtual stacks. But there is no leather-bound index; instead, we have search engines, chiefly Google.

Now, there is no need to destroy information: the trusted guide can bury it like a needle in a near-infinite haystack. In our world that is so very unlike “1984” (or so we are told) the hidden persuaders could – perhaps do - operate by deliberately bringing us envelopes that we didn’t quite ask for.

Twelve months ago, the former editor-in-chief of “Psychology Today” Dr Robert Epstein described a series of experiments in which people were significantly influenced in their political decisions on the basis of surreptitious manipulation of Internet search results. (1) Even with candidates well-known to the sample groups, voting could be swayed by “20% or more.” In a follow-up article last February he says, “we now estimate that Hannon’s old friends [i.e. Google] have the power to drive between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Clinton on election day with no one knowing that this is occurring and without leaving a paper trail.” (2) Yesterday, Pamela Geller wrote a piece relaying and developing Julian Assange’s allegation that one way or another, Google is working on behalf of one of the Presidential candidates and against the other. (3)

At this point I must emphasise that I am not American and not only cannot vote for either Trump or Clinton, but should be extremely perplexed if I could. 

 The point is, every system can be gamed. There is no need to burn material if you can hide it in some rarely-visited and unsignposted corner of the Web; there is no need to disappear dissidents if you can shut off their means of communication (imagine if Milo Yiannopoulos had no other outlet than Twitter); for every person moved by attending one of Trump’s mountebank presentations, there must be thousands making up their minds from their private, yet thoroughly-monitored and interactively-tweaked Internet searches.

The socialists have it all wrong. Great power comes not from owning the means of production but, as Rockefeller showed, from controlling its distribution. Social media and search engines are part of the modern Fourth Estate, the gatekeepers and guides of public information. If they cannot be impartial, democracy faces an existential threat from its persuaders.

Remember what happened when Athens listened to Demosthenes.

UPDATE (27 August 2016): Heads have rolled -

(3) _______________________________________________________________

This post appeared previously on Talkmarkets:

A painter on a painting: ‘Girl with a Kitten’ by Lucian Freud

Artist Catherine Beaumont looks at Lucian Freud's 1947 "Girl With A Kitten":

Image: Tate -

‘Girl with a Kitten’ by Lucian Freud, is to me as an artist, a very fascinating painting. It is a portrait of the artist’s first wife, Kitty Garman, who was the daughter of famous sculptor Jacob Epstein. Freud painted her in 1947, a year before their tempestuous marriage. The painter’s future wife is cloaked under the anonymous title, ‘Girl with a Kitten’, highlighting that this is a double portrait, equally of the ‘girl’ and of the young kitten who is clasped strangely by the neck.

The enigmatic pair are painted in muted, ashen colours, a myriad of dove greys and soft blues, set against the dark swathes of Garman’s mahogany hair, which seem frayed and static from the intensity of the painter’s gaze. The colours are a precursor of Freud’s later impasto flesh tones that would become so acclaimed, yet in this painting they appear restrained like the tight grip of the sitter on the kitten’s neck.

What so thrills me about this painting, as an artist and as a curious human being, is how impenetrable this portrait is. Freud structures the portrait with a three quarter profile of his future wife, with her gaze averted, making her inaccessible, yet he places the kitten staring directly out of the centre of the canvas. With such a direct gaze, it makes me feel that the kitten is more than just a passive addition to the painting, but an emblem of Kitty Garman herself. However, this is surprising as it is so unlike Freud to use symbols in his work, claiming that his ideal in art is to appear ‘in his work no more than God in nature’. But why is the kitten’s gaze so direct and unblinking? Why does it stare with such intensity at the viewer? To me it seems that the kitten plays with the sitter’s name, linking ‘kitten’ with ‘Kitty’, giving the anonymous ‘girl’ an identity and pairing their feline eyes and heart shaped faces.

If this is so, it would make me feel that it tells us more about Garman and Freud’s relationship. In the painting, the girl seems absent, with a look of almost horror in her eyes. She is distant from her grip on the kitten, which makes me wonder if this grasp reflects not herself but the artist’s grip on her, his ‘Kitty’, as her future husband. The look of tension in her eyes makes me think of ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning – “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”… I feel that Garman becomes a possession of the artist, as in the Duke’s ruthless collection, to be collected with many other women that he would love and paint. In this piece, it seems to me that it captures Garman’s dawning realisation of her partner’s turbulent nature, suspending perfectly this line - ‘Then all smiles stopped together’…

On the other hand, on closer inspection you can see that Garman’s eyes are painted in startling hazel green, whereas the kitten’s eyes are a lucid pale blue, which more closely resemble Freud’s eyes.

Source image for second detail:

Perhaps then, the captured kitten is not Kitty Garman at all, but represents how Freud felt trapped and suffocated by this serious, pre-marital relationship.