living artists

An icon – step by step

I have commissioned an artist in Poland to paint an icon. It is a copy of a the Theotokos of Vladimir. Here is a progress report.

Above is the original — pre-10th century Greek original, Venerated at first in Vladimir (the Vladimir Cathedral was built to house it) and later in Moscow (Cathedral of the Dormition). It is now on display in the Tretyakov Gallery. And below is (almost) as famous version of it by Rublev (1408), now in the Vladimir Museum.

And below is mine.

If you have a link to a larger/better image of the Greek original, could you please post it in comments? Thanks.

Matmee — Thai Silk Ikats, part 7: Some thoughts on the art and — art in general

In my last post wrote:

“From speaking to and watching the weavers at work one can see that their work is a source of happiness to them:  1) it allows them to experience the satisfaction of flow (concentration upon successful execution of a challenging task); 2) it affords them the aesthetic pleasures of a) looking at beautiful colors and surfaces and b) of bringing things into an order (think of the pleasure of reassembling a picture puzzle); and
3) it is perhaps their only activity in which they can earn cash and admiration for something they do: within the silk world, good weavers are famous; outside of it, in the eyes of the world, they’re just ordinary rice farmers.”

In fact, the relationship of matmee weavers to their work is very much typical of the relationship of all traditional artists to their craft.

Likewise, the experience of the end-user of matmee has all the characteristics typical of the way traditional arts are and have been consumed world over: collectors’ appreciation centers around three factors: a) technical evaluation of the quality of the work and b) of its various technical features, both of which require (and display) non-arbitrary expertise (a piece of silk either is a good work or it is not; the dies either are or are not natural; a weave either is or is not typical of Surin, etc.) and c) a kind of experience of rapture when looking at the dazzling patterns and color combinations.

Traditional arts have worked this way universally – from Patancas to Ibaragi, from weaving to fresco painting: the primary concerns are with technique (its development, acquisition, understanding and command); acquisition and display of a large body of lore; and the experience of rapture in appreciation of the end product.

(By rapture I mean a psychological state induced by the way shapes, patterns and colors interact with our cognitive apparatus on a non-verbal, non-theoretical level. A good work confounds and astonishes the consumer, it literally boggles the mind – makes a powerful but incomprehensible impression, providing a kind of out of the mind experience (“je ne se quoi”): a sense of wonder).


Current western theories of art, which have evolved over the last century in response the phenomenon of modern (“conceptual”) art – such as that art is a kind of game (Gadamer), whose rules are negotiated as part of its conduct (Danto), etc. – do not really apply to traditional arts. (Perhaps one could say that they are not specific enough to pick out traditional arts, but it also seems that they are not specific enough to pick out anything:  after all, almost any human activity – driving, for instance – consists of negotiating the rules as we go along, etc).

Indeed, traditional arts are best understood in contrast with modern art theory and practice. Main differences lie in two areas, in the area of denotation, and in the area of aesthetic experience.


In terms of denotation, discourse in the traditional arts is

1.  specific (type of die-used, say)

(Traditional art does not afford the critic the opportunity to display general erudition or verbal playfulness or intellectual originality.  A critic either knows something specific, or he is a fool).

2. non-arbitrary (x is or is not in y technique)

(It is expressly not true that an unlimited number of mutually contradictory judgments and opinions concerning a single work are possible:  the technique determines unmistakably what is to be judged as good and or bad).

3.  never touches on interpretation

(Artist’s “intention” – “meaning” — if any — is given a priori by the genre:  Madonnas are for worship, kris are for stabbing, etc.  “Traditional arts means nothing”).

Aesthetic Experience

Appreciation of all traditional arts evolves around the work’s ability to spark a mental state which I propose to name rapture – a baffling cognitive response to the work, distinctly non-verbal (“otherwordly”) — indescribable and therefore generally not discussed — but nevertheless essential to any work to be considered of value.

This is not to say that aesthetic rapture is entirely absent from modern art (some pursues it and achieves it) but it does seem that modern art practice is rarely interested in aesthetic rapture; its main interest lies in sparking an altogether different mental state: a kind of intellectual bafflement, i.e. an experience of verbally accessible paradox (e.g. how can there be spiked irons or how can a toilet bowl be an art object, how come 2 + 2 is 4 and not 7, etc.).  Traditional arts take no interest in this kind of experience at all.

Indeed, one could say that traditional arts have almost nothing in common with modern art.

Matmee — Thai Silk Ikats, part 6: current state of affairs

Matmee weaving has been on an accelerating decline: there are ever fewer weavers as old weavers retire but no young people enter the profession. I know several Khon Kaen girls whose mothers’ weave, and who are proud of their mothers’ work, but who themselves have not woven a thread and would not weave one if their life depended on it: to their minds, weaving stinks of old, passe countryside life which they are eager to leave behind. Almost any other menial city job seems better.

More importantly, mothers choose not to teach their daughters:  they prefer for their girls to complete schooling and move to the city.  The city seems to them to promise an easier life — even if the girls should end up, as they usually do, in the ranks of city proletariat.  And even though teaching their daughters to weave in their spare time, after school or on weekends, would not subtract from the child’s education, but on the contrary, enhance her repertoire of skills, somehow, they do not:  weaving does not stand alone in their minds as a valuable skill;  but forms an inalienable a part of the village-woman’s life.  To their minds, one begins to leave the village by first abandoning the weaving.

Economic incentives play their part, too: it takes between 4 and 12 weeks to weave a full-patterned matmee.  This effort is well rewarded for master weavers who turn out the best work, priced in the hundreds-of-dollars-and-up range (remember that the weaving is done in the breaks between other kinds of work!) but in the case of ordinary pieces commanding prices in the under-hundred-dollars range, the financial rewards are not high: a Khon Kaen girl working in a bar in Bangkok makes $30 – $50 a night.

The demand-side economics isn’t good, either: buyers who were reportedly numerous before the Asian Monetary Crisis of 1997, have largely disappeared. Perhaps that crisis had the same effect on Thai middle class that the current global crisis is having on our own middle class today: the middle class itself is coming to an end as we know it.  All traditional artists and dealers whom I meet today – world over – tell the same story: the American and European middle class have dropped out form the market completely, leaving only two market segments: cheap junk at the bottom and super-rich at the top.  It seems that many of the traditional arts which I am studying will probably not survive the forthcoming two decades of economic stagnation.

The owner of the Chonnabot Thai Silk Factory says his firm used to employ about 100 weavers in late 1980s; on a recent Monday, there were two.


From speaking to and watching the weavers at work one can see that their work is a source of happiness to them: 1) it allows them to experience the satisfaction of flow (concentration upon successful execution of a challenging task); 2) it affords them the aesthetic pleasures of a) looking at beautiful colors and surfaces and b) of bringing things into an order (think of the pleasure of reassembling a picture puzzle); and
3) it is perhaps their only activity in which they can earn cash and admiration for something they do: within the silk world, good weavers are famous; outside of it, in the eyes of the world, they’re just ordinary rice farmers.

It does not occur to these women that by failing to teach their daughters, they deprive them of an important source of happiness.

Hans Castorp in Gdansk

If positioning be marketing’s equivalent of location, then Pawel Huelle is right in front of Harrod’s: a Polish writer from Gdansk, with a German-sounding last name, and writing about his city’s prewar past, he is Paul to Günter Grass’s Peter, his left-hand path, his mirror image, his Other without which the German Nobelist is nothing but the one-sided voice of the displaced, irrelevant, powerless ethnic German Danzingers. It is perhaps in recognition of this – and not merely Huelle’s superb writing (what am I saying?! Merely superb-writing?!) – that Günter Grass has been promoting him.

Thankfully, the man’s ambition knows no bounds: having so easily done Grass, Huelle nonchallantly reached for the utlimate prize and – did Mann:  his Castorp is a prequel to Magic Mountain. It is a short, clever, delightful novel about Mann’s unlikely hero’s halcyon days in Gdansk. (“[Castorp] had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytechnic” Mann tells us in a small detail which you have probably missed).

Indeed, much of the pleasure of reading Castrop is Mannisch: the description of the hero’s sailing from Hamburg to Gdansk is reminiscent of Castorp’s train trip in the Magic Mountain, the meals on board of the meals at the Berghof, and the scene in which the first mate shows the young hero the engine room of the steamship, of the x-ray scene in Mann. Huelle does this well: he maintains the same tempo, the same delectation of facts, the same economy of words mastering the same power of symbolism.

Un-Mann-like, the story is wonderfully whimsical – Inspector Cluzoe-like, Castrop rubs shoulders against crime and political intrigue without noticing.   Also un-Mann-like, it is peppered with small, carefully disguised details which will escape you, Castorp-like, unless you pay attention: the psycho-analyst (1905!) is a student of Doctor Charcot, not Freud; the hero travels to Zoppot in search of Maria Mancinis; the ship Castorp passes at sea, the ABPOPA, is in fact AVRORA (its guns will start the October revolution – and thus announce the beginning of the end of Castorp’s world). Etc.

Castorp himself is perhaps more adult and more self-confident than we know him from Magic Mountain; but his philosophical reveries are the same:

As he focused on descriptive geometry, the basics of machine building, applied mathematics or technical drawing exercises, Castorp sometimes liked to free his attention from the lesson, prop his chin on his fist, and stare out of a large window, as outside, against the pure blue sky, dazzling white cumulus clouds, slowly and majestically went sailing by.

One day the mathematics professor, Herr von Mangoldt, noticed this dreamy attitude and inquired: “And just what mathematical root might you extract from those clouds, sir?”

“Excuse me”, replied the disconcerted student, “but if I were to refer to what you have just said about the sequence of primary numbers resulting from Fermat’s equation, I would think of… infinity.”

And then there are absolute gems of style, like this, when hearing a girl sing a song on a beach made him recall the melody of a Schubert piano sonata, which his father played the night his mother died:

Only once he was in the tram did Castorp free himself from these memories. Their place was taken by pure music. He had never had such a strange experience before: the tune his father had played on the piano and the fisher-girl’s song were both ringing inside him simultaneously, purely and faultlessly, without causing any confusion, just as if Schubert, who wrote the first, also had the perfect knowledge of the second, or maybe even – what an absurd idea – composed his song about three phantom suns not so much under the influence of his local folk song, but as its reflection – not a symmetrical mirror image, not something immobile, but captured in a mirror of water, and thus a live and vibrant reflection. Castorp’s thoroughly analytical turn of mind allowed him to internalize both tunes like mathematical functions, which, while running in total void, as if in a sphere of complete silence, diverged abruptly, then, after a set period of time crossed paths at a predetermined point, only for each of them to seek its way again. And as the window he was sitting at quickly steamed up, Castorp drew these two lines on the whitish surface and inspected them with an emotion similar to the one he had felt not long ago while watching the depths of the sea churned up by the ship’s propeller.

Of course no reference to Magic Mountain could be complete without the famous dream.  We have it here, too:

The tram had long since passed the stop at the Kastanienweg, but Castorp was in his own separate time, on the slope of snowy mountain. Through the thick fog one could only guess at the nearby peaks, but that was not the focus of his attention right now. He could hear a strange, low rumble, as if not far off kegs or boxes were being sent across an ice-rink. After a while the fog subsided a little, and there in the snow he saw a narrow track, probably for sleds, down which over and over, at regular intervals came strange, narrow maybe hospital beds. In fact, they were bobsleighs, which Hans Castorp had never seen before, but his first, medical association proved not entirely mistaken, because as soon as he came closer to the track, he noticed that in these vehicles, wrapped to their necks in camelhair blankets, dead people were rushing down the icy path. He recognized this by the snow-flakes: they did not melt on the skin, but formed either a thick coating, or a transparent veil on the travelers’ faces. Under this sort of delicate film he glimpsed the face of his grandfather, Senator Castorp. Then, among very many others, his mother flashed by past him, while at the end of the strange procession he saw the face of the clerk at the Polytechnic who had bored him with his absurd theories. As soon as the cloud of snow had settled behind him, Castorp saw the panorama of mountains unveiled before him. The sun was reflecting off snowy peaks with such force that he had to squint. Far below in the valley, Danzig lay stretched our before his feet. He could see the church towers, the ribbon of the Motlau with its granaries and the entire labyrinth of the back streets of the Altstadt. “Are you ready?” he heard a woman say. “Do you have the courage?”

The novel is a marvel, the translation is excellent, and the book itself is well made: it is small, light, beautifully bound, with nice typeface on delicate paper. Five stars.

And then God created William Morris

William Morris, b. 1957
Engraved Impala Situla
, 2000, glass, free-blown, wheel-engraved and tooled

“Morris’ technical skills are legendary. His subjects reflect an interest in other civilizations’ representations of the natural world”, says the curator. “Here, a life-like impala becomes a situla, a vessel for the drawing of water”. V&A curator further notes patterns “resemble African textiles”. To me the more significant seem the surfaces which imitate natural textures: fur, flesh, horn. Even if some of the horn, truth be told, feels more like turtle-shell.

The damn thing is good 3 feet tall.

Bloody American, too.  Unbelievable.

PS.  The images on his website are small (even if the prices aren’t).