Reactor

Required Reading

by Hrag Vartanian on February 13, 2011


This week, the world is looking to Egypt with the hope that democracy may take root in a North African nation that has too often been burdened by tyranny and monarchs. I would suggest that before you look forward to what is possible it’s important to look back to see what came before. One episode in particular may explain why the West is so fascinated by Egypt — the conquest and eventual expulsion of Napoleon in the late 18th C. The episode that helped shape Egyptology and Orientalism inspired artists throughout the 19th C., including Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose “Bonaparte Before the Sphinx” (1867-8) is one of the most impressive works to grapple with the topic. In his canvas, he has a solitary French leader confront the Sphinx, which appears to stare blankly past Napoleon. I think the painting is particularly funny for the fact that Napoleon was known to have ailurophobia, a fear of cats, and the Sphinx is well, a giant cat with a human head. I would also suggest taking a look at:

  • François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, “Battle of the Pyramids” (1798-1799) — more related works here
  • Seattle’s Frye Art Museum show a few years ago, Napoleon on the Nile, and one at the Institut du Monde Arabe in 2008 titled Napoleon and Egypt: Fire and Lights
  • You may also be interested in perusing the drawings of Jean-Baptiste Lepère, who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt and became renowned as the the foremost architectural draughtsman on the expedition. An exhibition of his drawings took place last year at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne (there’s a small slideshow on the site)
  • And if all this isn’t enough for you, take a look at a blog devoted to Napoleon’s Egypt, though there are few images and it hasn’t been updated for quite a while.

Thomas Lawson, editor-in-chief of East of Borneo, has penned an insightful essay into the history of whitewashing in Southern California that begins with the infamous MoCA/Blu incident but then looks back to reveal some fascinating historical facts:

Institutional whitewash has been an integral part of the story of outdoor mural painting in Los Angeles since David Alfaro Siqueiros invented the genre in the summer of 1932.

… outdoor murals inadvertently grew out of the fresco class. Siqueiros felt that the only way to teach the technique was through example, and he asked the owner of the school, Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, if he could create a fresco in the classroom … Chouinard refused permission, offering instead an exterior wall in the school’s sculpture court. Siqueiros leapt at the challenge.

… Something like eight hundred people came to the unveiling of the mural on July 7, 1932, and already there was some scandal because the mural showed what looked like a union meeting at a time of labor unrest, with the extra frisson of an African American male depicted on equal footing with a white female. Within two weeks the entire work had disappeared, and it was unclear if this was the result of faulty technique — the color sinking into the still-drying cement — or an act of censorship on the part of the school authorities.

You may have heard that recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) partnered with LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs to take on the ambitious — and important — job of preserving the Watts Towers of Southern California. This masterpiece of imaginative architecture and design is one of the most incredible structure to spring from the imagination of a 20th C. outsider artist/architect. The LACMA blog Unframed has an interview with two LACMA people who are spearheading the project, Brooke Davis Anderson, Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning, and Mark Gilberg, the Suzanne D. Booth and David G. Booth Conservation Center Director. And it’s also great to hear that the project has just received a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation.

Graphic design historian and thinker Steven Heller has finally tracked down a Nazi graphics standard manual from Nazi Germany, because we all knew that the Master Race had to have a master style guide … but wait:

The Nazis brand may indeed be uniformly distinctive, but for all the significance they placed on graphic design, there was more variety and greater leeway than one might think.

The Future of Art “autodocumentary” doesn’t answer many questions, and meanders a bit, but it does ask some interesting questions:

What are the defining aesthetics of art in the networked era? How is mass collaboration changing notions of ownership in art? How does micropatronage change the way artists produce and distribute artwork?

And related … are you reading for the Singularity? The new prediction is that by 2045 everything will change. The question is will this finally be a boon for new media artists? Who knows … but:

In that year, [Raymond Kurzweil] estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.

Required Reading is published every Sunday morning at 7am-ish EST, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links (10 or less) to long-form articles, videos, blog posts or photo essays worth a second look.

Image caption: Jean-Léon Gérôme, “Bonaparte Before the Sphinx” (1967-8), in the collection of the Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California, USA (via Wikipedia)

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