Desiring The Unobtainable: Gowns Made Of Paper

Unobtainium. The exotic, unobtainable, and probably mythic substance sought by scientists that would make a resounding breakthrough and success of the scientific endeavor at hand. Borrowing that concept from science, it’s interesting to realize that some of the glamorous things we desire give a convincing illusion of attainability but are, instead, wholly unobtainable.

De Borchgrave dressConsider Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave’s elaborate gowns copied from some 300 years of high fashion, ca. late 17th to the early 20th century. Even the most elaborate of original fabric gowns from those eras are, theoretically, wearable. Certainly recreatable, in approximate respects. But de Borchgrave’s gowns are made of papier-mâché! Life-size, three-dimensional, authentic-looking gowns, robes, and jackets. And shoes – delightful faux-brocade pumps and slippers.

A close look at these gowns, featured in Prêt-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, a recent exhibit at the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., revealed the intricate workmanship of the drape, prints, trims, and ornamentation. The heavy drape of an opulent taffeta, perhaps. The gossamer lightness of voile. The impressive illusion of fabric fitted atop hoops and panniers. In certain respects, the de Borchgrave gowns are perhaps more impressive than the originals in that the artist had to not only design, cut and assemble the gowns but also fashion and paint the “fabric.” Each piece is painstakingly crushed, ironed, painted, cut, and constructed. It looks just as if a wearer could be fitted into these splendid fashions by a lady’s maid, or more simply slip into one of the sheath 1920s frocks by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London. (Virginia wrote about a 2009 exhibit of de Borchgrave's Italian Renaissance gowns here.)De Borchgrave 1920s paper dresses based on originals by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London

Papier-mâché can be made into wearable, if not especially durable, costumes and masks. The de Borchgrave gowns were not made for that.

Yet, one wants to wear these dresses, designed, as they originally were, for human beings - or at least see someone else wear them. File under “impossible fantasy” because, alas, they are fantasies made of papier-mâché.

(For another, more conceptual take on paper fashion, see also: Petra Storrs on Pinterest and YouTube.)

How Gordon Parks Made Fashion Photography Glamorous

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Model wearing nursemaid's kerchief by Lilly Dache. Photo: Gordon Parks, courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation

At the New York Times' Lens photo blog, Deborah Willis, of the Photography and Imaging Department at New York University, looks at the fashion work of the late Gordon Parks, who would have turned 100 this year. 

Parks is best known for his socially conscious documentary photography—he was the first black photographer for Life magazine—and for the 1970s blaxpoitation film Shaft, which he directed (and which is quite stylish too). But Parks largely got his start in the glamour industry, shooting portraits of society women in Chicago before eventually landing at the ne plus ultra of fashion magazines, Vogue, where he freelanced from the mid-1940s to the '60s.

Parks produced some of the magazine's loveliest images: models draped in furs and waiting for a bus; a woman dashing across an office, her sorbet-colored gown trailing behind her; girls in pert hats jumping in and out of taxis, or deep in conversation at a Parisian cafe. Willis writes:

With a clear understanding about how to “look” on city streets, in cafes and society balls, Parks’s fashion photographs are about the experience of being dressed. He communicated beauty, vanity and pleasure in his photographs of fashionably dressed women. ...

But there's something else that makes Parks's images so arresting, and that made them so radical at the time, and it's that they are alive. At the time Parks was beginning his career at Vogue, most fashion photography was done in a studio, with models posing like mannequins in front of artificial-looking sets or painted backdrops. Parks—along with Martin Munkácsi at Harper's Bazaar and Richard Avedon—was among the first to bring the model onto the streets, showing her interacting with the city and its inhabitants. And it made fashion photography more glamorous, because it allowed women to get lost in the narrative of a photograph, and imagine a world in which waiting for a bus or going to work was filled with romance and excitement and dramatic possibility. Before, fashion photography was about clothes; Parks and his peers made it about the women and the lives they lead in those clothes.

Click on the link to read Willis' article and see a slide show of Parks's work. 

Art And Neurobiology In "The Age Of Insight"

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alexander C. Kafka reviews an interesting-looking new book on aesthetics by neuroscientist Eric Kandel: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Kafka quotes Kandel’s analysis of Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes:

Gustav_Klimt_Judith

At a base level, the aesthetics of the image’s luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith’s smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes’s decapitated head, as well as Judith’s own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer’s memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt’s ‘Judith’ so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions.

While I’m generally partial to mechanistic and evolutionary-psych analysis, and imagine that our circuits are indeed lighting up per Kandel's description, when it comes to slicing and dicing how and why art moves us, I prefer Camille Paglia’s style of Freud-infused pop-culture riffing and inconography.

Writing about the power of the same painting in her Sexual Personae, Paglia's take seems more compelling, without delving into the grey matter:

The Jewish heroine of Florentine art is now a cynical demimondine with a cold, worldly Joan Crawford face. Smiling, she runs her fingers through dead Holofernes’ hair, parodying romantic tenderness. Her white expanse of breast and belly and taunting directness of gaze come from Von Stuck’s Eve.

Dopamine levels don't seem quite as interesting. But, as the reviewer explains, there's much more to the book than which neurons fire where. Kandel’s focus on just three Viennese artists, Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, allows him “to compare the painters’ rendering of emotion, the unconscious, and the libido with contemporaneous psychological insights from Freud about latent aggression, pleasure and death instincts, and other primal drives.”

Art history and theory with a focus on Klimt, with both neurobiological and tell-me-about-your-mother insights? If Kandel throws in even a few Pagliaesque Chthonic taboos or Mommie Dearest references, we may have a winner.

h/t Arts & Letters Daily

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Renaissance Portraits At The Met: Self-Image And The Public Face

Botticelli Simonetta Vespucci portraits

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted an extraordinary exhibit called The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which includes paintings, sculptures, medals, and preparatory drawings that are rarely if ever seen together. I was lured to the December press preview by the chance to see Botticelli's idealized portraits of Simonetta Vespucci (above) without a trip to Berlin. (I've previously discussed the right-facing portrait's resemblance to a certain contemporary star.) They are indeed spectacular.

 Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano terracotta bust

But the most impressive display was the side-by-side comparison of two busts of Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano: the terracotta study done from life, above, and the final marble version, below.

 Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano marble bust

The two busts are the same, yet different: a portrait before and after subtle retouching. In the marble bust, da Maiano not only makes Strozzi looks less tired and absent but also changes the tilt of his head, giving him a nobler mien. He looks like a leader.

Ghirlandaio_Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy_Louvre

We've gotten so used to thinking about retouching as something done with pixels and Photoshop that we often forget not only how important it was to early glamour photographers like George Hurrell but also how unusual the ideal of non-idealized images was throughout most of western history. Until the rise of what historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison call the ideal of "mechanical objectivity," there would have been no question that a portrait should follow the Aristotelian ideal of producing a “likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.”

This dictum applied more universally than we tend to think. In The Patron's Payoff, Jonathan Nelson and Richard Zeckhauser note that “though many praise Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man for its 'realism,' the bulbous growth on the patron’s nose was even more prominent in the preparatory drawing.” You can see the final, glamorized version, which is in the Met exhibit, to the left.

As traditionally conceived, portraits are not like snapshots (most of which aren't that candid either). They're are designed to present a public face. Within the constraints of likeness, they represent the persona the subject wishes to appear--assuming that the subject is the one commissioning the portrait. In The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, John Brewer discusses some of the dilemmas facing 18th-century portrait painters, whose clients could refuse to pay if they didn't like the results.“The trick,” writes Brewer, “was to understand how the portrait should be presented. Usually the client had a sense of how he wanted the sitter to appear. Part of a good portraitist's skill lay in discerning this; otherwise the commission could go disastrously wrong.”

For instance, Jean-Étienne Liotard, who specialized in miniatures, was too realistic for his clients' tastes. (Here's a nice example of his work.) “His likenesses were very strong,” a contemporary said, “and too like [i.e., accurate] to please those who sat for him; thus he had great employment the first year and very little the second.” Ozias Humphry ran into a different sort of conflict when he was hired by a man who wanted a portrait of his wife. The wife, naturally, wanted to look young and attractive. Humphry complied--and infuriated his paying customer. “You have forgot that she is between 30 and 40,” he wrote to Humphry, “and that I am 70, and that the character of a smirking Girl is very unfit for her situation, as I should have liked to have made her of more Importance, and I find some of my friends ridicule me upon it.”

When I read that I thought of my official Bloomberg portrait. In real life, I look more or less like the photo on the left, which is a candid of me accepting the Bastiat Prize. (I'm well lit and well coiffed.) The middle photo is the one I use most of the time as my “official” portrait and is, except for reversing the hands, a characteristic post. (My hair no longer has those post-chemo curls.) The one on the right is my Bloomberg photo, for which I had professional hair and makeup and unknown amounts of retouching. But, most important, the photographer refused to let me smile. No “smirking Girls” at Bloomberg View! (For another contrast, check out Amity Shlaes at Bloomberg View, in a candid lecture shot, and on her own website.) The expression isn't my resting or serious face either; it's more attractive. So the picture looks like I'm an actress playing someone else--the same physiognomy but a different personality.

Virginia Postrel portraits

For more on Nelson and Zeckhauser's work on image building by Florentine patrons, including Strozzi, see my article here. The Met exhibit will be on through March 18. If you can't make it in person, you might want to get the gorgeous catalog.

[Botticelli's Ideal Portrait of a Lady (right-facing image) and Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other exhibit photos by Virginia Postrel and permission is granted to reproduce these photos with a link back to this post.]

DG Q&A: Christian Esquevin Of Silver Screen Modiste

Christian Esquevin Silver Screen Modiste I've been enjoying Christian Esquevin's Silver Screen Modiste blog, which he started in December 2010, for the past six months or so and, thanks to a Google search, knew that he lives in Southern California (he's director of library services for the city of Coranado). So when I went to the Debbie Reynolds auction, I made a point of looking for him in line. Sure enough, Christian arrived not long after I did. In our conversation there and in his subsequent blog posts on the auction, he provided valuable insight for my Bloomberg View column. I also learned that he has a large collection of costume design sketches, which are a beautiful art in themselves. Christian kindly agreed to share a few sketches (don't even think of reusing them without permission), as well as some thoughts on the art and history of movie costumes.

DG: How did you get interested in Hollywood costumes?

Christian Esquevin: My interest came relatively late. My great-aunt had been the head cutter-fitter at the RKO studio during the 1930s. Although I had heard some of her stories growing up, it was not until she bequeathed me many of her photos and costume sketches that I became interested. This interest grew into a passion as I researched many of the unknowns about these beautiful items.

Adrian Silver Silver Screen to Custom Label by Christian Esquevin DG: You've written a book about Adrian, who with Edith Head is probably the most famous Hollywood costume designer. What makes his work particularly significant?

CE: There were, and are still, many great costume designers for films. Adrian, I believe, was a genius. He combined his artistic and fashion abilities with the needs of the movie character and the actor playing the part to make indelible images. I truly believe that along with costume designer Travis Banton he created the modern look of glamour.

You can actually look at a photo of some of their creations and say that there was no precedent for such a look – that’s where modern glamour started. Take any of several photos of Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, or Carole Lombard for example. The look of knock-your-eyes-out glamour is there, and it’s still the look today. And with Adrian, you can look at fashion at the time (late 1920s and 1930s) and draw the connection between his costume designs for the stars on film and what women wanted to wear around the world. His looks have been knocked-off for so long that people nowadays can no longer make that connection. Yves St. Laurent was heavily influenced by Adrian in the 1960s, but it’s YSL that gets the mentions.

Los Angeles is always being compared unfavorably with other cities in fashion creation and influence. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, Los Angeles and Hollywood were where fashion trends were started, and that was due to the influence of costume designers like Adrian.

Irene EasterParade costume sketch DG: You're now writing a book on Irene, Walter Plunkett, and Helen Rose. What should people know about them?

CE: These three costume and fashion designers were as influential and accomplished in their day as Dior or Schiaparelli. They all led fascinating creative lives designing the looks of movie-star icons, yet who hears of them today?

If your resume stated that you created the costume designs for Gone with the Wind, Singing in the Rain, and King Kong among many others, as it would for Walter Plunkett, people would be impressed. Or that you designed Grace Kelly’s wedding gown, much of Elizabeth Taylor’s early wardrobe, and for such stars as Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Cyd Charisse, Doris Day, Esther Williams, Debbie Reynolds, and many others, people would take notice.

As for Irene Lentz Gibbons, known simply as Irene, it was said at the time that she dressed everyone in Hollywood. [The sketch to the left is one of Irene's designs for Easter Parade.--vp] Since she worked both as a costume designer and a fashion designer with her own boutique and then her own fashion business, she really did work with many leading ladies. Her customers and stars included Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Dolores Del Rio, Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, and many others. When you look at her gowns and suits you’ll quickly see why she was so admired. They are impeccable and drop-dead gorgeous. While each of these designers is fascinating in their own right, they all worked at MGM at the same time for a period. What a combination – a unique time and place in history that will never be repeated. I just couldn’t leave that story alone.

DG: You collect costume design sketches. How do the clothes change from sketch to actual garment to what we see on film? What's the difference from medium to medium?

CE: I’ll talk about the process during the classic, “studio system,” which is what I’m most familiar with. At that time the studios employed virtually all the talent they needed on a long-term basis. In the wardrobe department this was a vertical integration, so that a designer had one or more “cutter-fitters” they worked with, and seamstresses working under them. These skilled cutter-fitters made muslin patterns based on the costume sketch a designer created. And consider that the costumes fabricated could be Elizabethan, classic Roman, or satin glamour gowns.

The costume sketch itself could be rendered by a sketch artist that had the artistic ability to paint figures and costumes. In these cases the sketch artist had to develop a close working relationship with the designer. Some designers wanted to do the sketch themselves. Adrian, for example, did not want anyone else “interpreting” his designs.

After the cutter-fitter used the sketch to devise patterns, the seamstresses would sew the final fabric based on the individual pattern pieces and then sew them for the fitting. Beaders and embroiderers would also base their work on the sketch.

Still, changes came about in the movie-making process. So some costumes were later modified from the original sketch for the movie. Edith Head liked to change her costume designs as she went along. Adrian wanted his costumes to look just like his sketch.

What is particularly fascinating about having an original production-made costume sketch is that this is an artifact that was handled by the stars, the director, often the producer, and the artisans that made the costume itself, as well as the designer. These pieces often have approval initials from these individuals, as well as budget information on the back. They are unique pieces of Hollywood film history.

DG: Can you share a few of your favorite sketches with our readers and tell us a bit about them?

CE: I have many sketches, and each is special in its own way. Although they have traditionally been called “costume sketches,” they are really water-color paintings, with more attention taken than would a pencil sketch. They were nonetheless working tools, and equally important, they represented the costume designer’s original design. I emphasize this because there are also pieces floating around that were often done many years after a film had been made. These were often done by the designers themselves as commemorative illustrations, or because they did not possess the original sketches, and were made for some of their fashion shows. Since these were done as show pieces, they are typically exact reproductions of how the costume looked on film. But even as working tools, the sketches are usually beautiful – they had to “sell” the director and star on that look.

Swanson1

I have picked a few that I like and I think will be of interest to the viewers, or that illustrate a point I want to make about costume designing and sketches. One of the icons of the movies is Sunset Blvd. with Gloria Swanson. The costumes were designed by Edith Head. This is the costume sketch for Gloria Swanson’s opening scene in the film. It’s interesting because it’s not a regular dress but rather what was then called a hostess gown or hostess dress which was worn over pants. You only notice that when she descends the stairs in the movie. As with many of Edith’s designs, the final costume was changed in that the interior lining was no longer a plaid but rather a leopard print.

Edith Head sketches

Here is another Edith Head costume sketch, done for Betty Hutton in Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in 1942 (left). Edith Head sketches are pretty rare from the early 40s. Over her long career her sketches look quite different. That’s because she used different sketch artists over time and each had their own artistic style. Also, many costume sketches are never signed. When it was a real production sketch, everyone knew who the designer was, so it was not necessary to sign the piece. Sometimes that makes identifying a particular sketch difficult. The next sketch is also by Edith Head from this period, but there is nothing to identify who it was for or for what film.

Mary Wills costume sketches Virgin Queen Hans Christian Andersen

The next two are costume sketches designed by and rendered by Oscar winning costume designer Mary Wills. The first was done for Joan Collins in The Virgin Queen in 1955. Joan played Beth Throgmorton in the film. A fabric swatch is attached. This costume was one sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction. The next one was also from Mary Wills and was done for “extras” in the outdoor market scene in Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye. This is one of many sketches Mary Wills did for a variety of outdoor vendors that made the scene really come to life. The sketch looks more like it was painted on an easel at the actual Copenhagen market than a costume sketch in a studio.

Donfeld 1
This sketch by Donfeld (Don Feld) was done for Angelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor. Donfeld’s sketching style was very distinctive, with exaggerated long limbs. This sketch was probably done later than the actual film production sketch.

Costume sketch Rose - Paris
Here is a costume sketch designed by Helen Rose for Edie Adams in Made in Paris in 1966. The sketch was actually rendered by Donna Peterson, Rose’s long-time sketch artist. Some sketches actually showed two views of the costume, or with and without a jacket or coat.

Costume sketch Travilla Valley of the Dolls

This sketch was done by William (Billy) Travilla for Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls in 1967. Travilla is famous for his costume designs for Marilyn Monroe, a couple of which sold for several millions at the Debbie auction.

DG: Are there any contemporary films whose costumes you particularly admire?

I really liked the costumes designed by Coleen Atwood for Alice in Wonderland last year. This was a challenge because of the fantastical nature of the story and the well established look of most of the characters, but she did a great job. Another “fantasy” type movie was The Tempest, with costumes designed by Sandy Powell for Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, and the other cast members. Powell really created the fantastical look of these characters based on the Shakespeare play.

For more contemporary costume I liked A Single Man, with costumes by Arianne Phillips and directed by Tom Ford. You’d expect the best costumes to come with a Tom Ford movie, and these did not disappoint both for the men’s and women’s wardrobe. And for those period costumes that are close to the “Mad Men” rage, there’s Revolutionary Road, designed by veteran costume designer Albert Wolsky for Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The one dress that has made the biggest splash over the last several years is Keira Knightly’s green satin, backless gown from Atonement, designed by Jacqueline Durran. The movie was set in the 30s and 1940s, and this gown is really right out of the classic movies of that era.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour?

The original meaning of glamour was “to enchant” and that’s what it’s still all about. The person or the dress of glamour is one that captures attention and holds it in a mesmerizing and basically pleasurable way. It is strictly visual, so you know it when you see it without being able to describe it. That’s one reason why new looks in fashion or glamour occur.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

There are several, including classic icons such as Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich, Gene Tierney, and Catherine Deneuve, and more contemporary ones like Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, and Marion Cotillard.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?

It is a luxury, but also a necessity in that it’s a human need that many people pursue.

4) Favorite glamorous movie?

There are many, but I’ll mention Dinner at Eight, The Women, Shanghai Express, To Catch a Thief, and The Thomas Crowne Affair (with McQueen & Dunaway).

[Questions 5, 6, and 7 omitted.]

8) Most glamorous job?

I think that even creating art, music, beauty, or fashion involves toil. Creating glamour is work, and displaying glamour oneself becomes a role. The most fun is being the person watching glamour.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't

Parties. I would make an exception for the “masked ball” parties that were held in France by such bon-vivants as Carlos de Beistegui during the first half of the last century, for which I was regrettably not around.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized

Formal dining outdoors for lunch.

11) Can glamour survive?

It will, but it’s always in short supply.

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

No. But It helps if you’re born in the right milieu. Mostly you acquire glamour through cultivation. Some people acquire it through the expertise of others. Garbo was glamorous on the screen, but it was Adrian that created that glamour for her.

[Sketches are owned by Christian Esquevin and used with permission. Do not even think of republishing them without permission. Tumblr counts as publishing.]

A Beautiful Stretch: Image Building In Renaissance Florence

Filippino_Lippi_-_St_Philip_Driving_the_Dragon_from_the_Temple_of_Hieropolis_-_WGA13146 Florentine authorities and residents were appalled when the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” invaded the Tuscan capital for the show’s fourth season, which will debut Aug. 4. What were Snooki and The Situation doing associating themselves with the refined city of Dante and Botticelli (not to mention Ferragamo)? Even New Jersey won’t claim these louts.

The ostensible idea was to pay homage to the cast members’ Italian heritage. But these hyper-American descendants of peasants from Italy’s far southern regions hardly represent the Florentine heritage of art, humanism and elegant style. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jennifer “JWoww” Farley aren’t even of Italian descent. The cast’s Florence connection is quite a stretch.

But stretching, it turns out, puts them in a great Florentine tradition. Brand-building through misleading images wasn’t invented on Madison Avenue or Hollywood. Many of Florence’s Renaissance treasures are monuments to exaggeration for the purposes of self-promotion. The medium may have changed, but the motives haven’t. It’s a bit of history that today’s Wall Street billionaires, who have a bit of a collective image problem, might want to study.

The Renaissance patrons who paid for all those frescoes, paintings, altar pieces and sculptures weren’t generally funding beauty for its own sake. They were buying status -- building their brands, we’d say today. Their patronage showed off their wealth and piety and, in many cases, advertised their supposed links to the prestigious and powerful. In the process, these patrons often shaded the truth, leaving out unflattering facts and suggesting associations they didn’t in fact have.

Know what to look for and Florentine artworks reveal secret messages that, while not as sexy as Dan Brown’s Mona Lisa fantasies, have the advantage of actually existing.

Take the boys shown walking up the stairs behind their tutor in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Santa Trinita church. What could these kids have to do with the “Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis,” the official subject of the fresco? They aren’t friars or church officials.

Sandro_Botticelli_085 In fact, their portraits are just good public relations. The patron, a banker named Francesco Sassetti, included them to butter up their father, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and to let the churchgoing public know that he and Lorenzo were tight.

But the painting doesn’t tell the whole story. It “conveniently omits a crucial fact about the patron’s relationship with the Medici,” write art historian Jonathan K. Nelson and economist Richard Zeckhauser in their book, The Patron's Payoff, which uses economic signaling theory to analyze Renaissance patrons’ motivations and techniques. That fact: “By the time he commissioned the fresco, Sassetti had nearly run the Geneva branch of the Medici bank into bankruptcy.” Oops. Maybe the portraits were meant as a distraction or damage control. How could you fire (or worse) a man who had sponsored such fine pictures of your kids?

Nelson and Zeckhauser’s work demonstrates that Renaissance art is full of status signals and calculated image-building -- once-obvious messages that today’s tourists never notice. Nelson, who is the art history coordinator at Syracuse University’s campus in Florence, showed me some examples at Santa Maria Novella, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary that stands near Florence’s train station. (It was novella, or new, in the 13th century.)

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

[Strozzi chapel fresco by Filippino Lippi and Del Lama Adoration by Sandro Botticelli from Wikicommons.]

A Matter Of Perspective: Thomas Fearnley's Pergola With Oranges

Thomas Fearnley Pergola with Oranges Art Institute of Chicago circa 1934
On a recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, I was struck by this painting, Pergola with Oranges by Thomas Fearnley. At first it seems like a basic exercise in perspective--all those lines converging at a vanishing point. But it didn't feel like mere geometry. The golden light, the oranges, the flowers, and the Mediterranean architecture seemed emotionally resonant, and intentionally so. Wouldn't it be great to join the man reading in the sun?

The museum's brief caption suggests I was right. If the date is correct (and it may be based on the assumption that the artist was working from life rather than memory), Fearnley painted this scene during a three-year sojourn in Italy. But he was a Norwegian--someone decidedly not from a land of golden sunshine and oranges so abundant they roll on the ground. He would have appreciated how special the scene was and I think he injected some of that emotion into the painting. But maybe it's in the eye of the beholder.

[Photo by Virginia Postrel. A better image is available on the Art Institute of Chicago's website.]

Early, More Glamorous Version Of Shepard Fairey's Obama Poster Up For Auction

Shepard Fairey Obama Change poster Bonhams auction This version of Shepard Fairey's 2008 Barack Obama poster, one of 200 prints the artist signed for campaign staff, will go up for auction at Bonham's on January 11. The auction house estimates its likely sales price at £1,000-1,500 ($1,546-2,319 at current exchange rates).

Although not as famous as the later versions based on Mannie Garcia's A.P. photo, the image of the candidate is even more glamorous. Instead of the angle spoofed by The Onion as a calculated "looking-off-in-the-future pose," this poster features a closer-cropped semi-profile where the stylized light and shadow work more naturally. It doesn't show the candidate's standard-issue suit or his goofy-looking ears.

Not to underplay the glamour of the famous version, but that Obama looks more like a regular politician or businessman—a dreamy guy in a suit—compared to this one. Here he not only looks less calculated and ordinary but a bit less like a Communist dictator and more like someone you'd find on American currency.

The one false note is the placement of the campaign's horizon logo. On the more-famous poster, where it appears on Obama's lapel, it reads as a campaign button. Here it looks like the artist said, "Oh wait, where can I stick that logo? Here's some empty dark space."

Check out this cropped version to see what I mean about currency.

Cropped Obama Shepard Fairey poster green
Did the campaign make a mistake to reject this image and prefer the later one? Or was that version more appealing?

From The Archives: Travel Posters, Glamour, And Iconoclasm

Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.

Isle of man poster british railways 

This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.

Come to Sunny Prestatyn 
Laughed the girl on the poster, 
Kneeling up on the sand 
In tautened white satin. 
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a 
Hotel with palms 
Seemed to expand from her thighs and 
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March. 
A couple of weeks, and her face 
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed; 
Huge tits and a fissured crotch 
Were scored well in, and the space 
Between her legs held scrawls 
That set her fairly astride 
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while 
Someone had used a knife 
Or something to stab right through 
The moustached lips of her smile. 
She was too good for this life. 
Very soon, a great transverse tear 
Left only a hand and some blue. 
Now Fight Cancer is there.

With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”

To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.

If You Had The Money, What...?

John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, was already captivated by automobiles by age five. He knew the names and model years of all the cars on the road. He would sit behind the wheel of his father’s parked 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook, and instead of being in the mountains of West Virginia, he would look at his father’s maps of Colorado and Utah and imagine himself driving in the wild West.

As an adult, John loved to watch documentaries and didn't think enough were available on TV, so in 1982 he founded the Cable Educational Network and, three years later, the Discovery Channel. Over time, while doing work that he loves as chairman of Discovery Communications, he and his wife Maureen have become wealthy.

Keep in mind that most entrepreneurial ventures fail, but imagine success. Imagine yourself with a multi-million dollar net worth. Would you imagine continuing to work, starting new ventures, and spending some of your earnings on your personal interests? Or do you see yourself leading a life of leisure, perhaps traveling the world on some fashionable circuit?


John and Maureen Hendricks have realized the first fantasy: Their interests and personalities haven't changed. They aren't flashy, and the luxuries they spend their money on aren't designed to impress the world. John, like many entrepreneurs, continues to work hard at various ventures, and both he and Maureen are involved in charitable activities, including establishing two foundations. But their wealth lets them live the dream of indulging their lifelong passions.

With extra money to spend, John Hendricks began to collect autos in earnest. And to share his love of automobiles, he created the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum to exhibit his growing collection of more than 40 vehicles. This beautifully designed museum provides both an educational and aesthetic experience.  John’s statement about the museum reveals his intense passion for automotive design.

The video above shows the prototype of legendary auto designer Harley Earl’s 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 on display at the museum. General Motors decided against producing the F-88 car partly because they were concerned it would compete with the Corvette. Only four prototypes were built and only this one survives. Hendricks purchased it at auction in 2005 for $3.24 million.

The Hendricks's shared love for the American Southwest led to their latest business venture, Gateway Canyons, a luxurious resort in a remote, spectacularly beautiful location in Western Colorado. The resort is now open after Phase I development, and includes the Experius Academy, a retreat for “introducing the most curious learners to the most passionate experts.”

Maureen Hendricks is avid quilter and art-quilt collector, and the Gateway Canyons facilities display numerous large art quilts, many of them by Katie Pasquini Masopust. Katie used to hold an annual quilt symposium Alegre Retreat in Santa Fe, which Maureen attended each year until rising venue expenses made it too difficult for Katie continue the symposium. The Gateway Canyon resort has given Maureen a way both to enjoy herself and to support other enthusiasts. With the resort’s support, Alegre Retreat now holds its workshops there. Staying at a luxurious resort to study and interact with some of the world’s best-known art quilters remains an expensive retreat for the participants, but Maureen’s passion for quilting is so strong that whether or not the quilting retreat becomes profitable is not her primary concern. She wants the aesthetic rewards of the Alegre Retreat to continue to be a part of her life.

Meeting them when my wife taught at Alegre, I was impressed at how inner-directed John and Maureen Hendricks are. If we fantasize about how we might spend multi-millions if we had them, would our choices likewise remain true to our preexisting passions? (Reflecting on this makes me consider my own passions.) Or do our fantasies revolve about living a life of luxurious leisure dictated by the images we see in fashion and travel magazines? (Such images definitely have appeal for me.) What about you? Imagining that you had some extra millions to spend, DG invites you to comment on how you might spend them.