Archive for the Art Category

Isle of the Dead

Posted in Art with tags , on January 19, 2017 by telescoper

Isle of the Dead (above) is the best-known painting of Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901). Prints of this work were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century—Vladimir Nabokov observed in his novel Despair that they could be “found in every Berlin home”. Several versions were made – the one shown above is the original (Basel) version, painted in  May 1880 – Oil on canvas; 111 x 155 cm.

Breaking Free

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been enjoy a series of fascinating programmes about music from the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern) on BBC Radio 3 this week gathered under the umbrella title of Breaking Free. In the period from roughly 1903 to 1925 these composers finally abandoned the traditional forms of tonality that late Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler had struggled with in their later work. Aside from its obvious emotional intensity, one of the reasons I find music from this period absolutely absorbing because it was written in a period of highly turbulent transition; you get such a strong sense of new possibilities being opened up when you listen to some of the pioneering works. Some of them are also extremely beautiful. I often hear people say that they they think atonal music sounds ugly, but I disagree. The same people would probably agree that birdsong is beautiful, and most of that is entirely atonal..

The only problem is that I’ve now got a very long list of recordings to buy, as I don’t have any CDs or downloads of some very important pieces. I’m going to be a but poorer financially as a consequence of this educational experience, but hopefully enriched in a cultural sense.

The “breaking free” in this period wasn’t confined to music – revolutionary change was underway in other artistic fields, including painting. Last night I was listening to one of the programmes in the Breaking Free series and it inspired me to have a look in some of my art books for something appropriate to post from the time (if not the location) of the 2nd Viennese School. I decided on this, wan abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky called Composition VII which was painted in 1913.


Infinite LIGO Dreams

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by telescoper

There was a special event in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University on Friday afternoon – the unveiling of a new work of art in our coffee area. The work, a large oil painting, called Infinite LIGO Dreams by local artist Penelope Rose Cowley was inspired by the detection of gravitational waves earlier this year:



You can read more about this work, and the circumstances behind its creation, at the Cardiff University website and via the Physics World blog. If you like the piece you can order a poster-sized print from Penelope Cowleys’s own website here.

The unveiling of this artwork was preceded by a drinks reception, which probably accounts for the errors that crept into the blog post I wrote on Friday after the party!


Dunes on Mars

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper


This isn’t a new picture, but I hadn’t seen it before a friend put in on their Facebook page at the weekend. It isn’t what I first thought it was – a wonderful piece of abstract art – but is, in fact, an equally wonderful photograph of the inside of the Bunge crater on Mars, where a complex pattern of dunes has formed through wind action. The area covered by the image is about 14 kilometers wide.

According to the official NASA webpage: “This image was taken in January 2006 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and posted in a special December 2010 set marking the occasion of Odyssey becoming the longest-working Mars spacecraft in history.”

La Gravitation Universelle

Posted in Art with tags , on November 12, 2016 by telescoper


(René Magritte, 1943; oil on canvas)

Too Brave To Dream

Posted in Art, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by telescoper


One day last week I found this wonderful item had been delivered to my house. Is a new book called Too Brave To Dream which contains about three dozen previously unpublished poems by R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000. After his death, two seminal studies of modern art were found on his bookshelves – Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933/1948) and Surrealism (1936), edited by Read and containing essays by key figures in the Surrealist movement. Poems handwritten by Thomas were later discovered between the pages of the two books. These poems written in response to a selection of the many reproductions of modern art in the Read volumes, including works by Henry Moore, Edvard Munch, George Grosz, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Graham Sutherland – many of whom were Thomas’s near contemporaries. Written between 1987 and 1993, these poems are published in Too Brave To Dream for the first time – alongside reproductions of the works of modern art that inspired them. They poems are instantly recognizable as works of R.S. Thomas. According to the publishers blurb:

Thomas’s readings of these often unsettling images demonstrate a willingness to confront, unencumbered by illusions, a world in which old certainties have been undermined. Personal identity has become a source of anguish, and relations between the sexes a source of disquiet and suspicion. Thomas’s vivid engagements with the works of art produce a series of dramatic encounters haunted by the recurring presence of conflict and by the struggle of the artist who, in a frequently menacing world, is ‘too brave to dream’.

The poems vary considerably in style and mood. Some are wry and playful – although Thomas isn’t perhaps best known for his sense of humour, he certainly wasn’t averse to playing with words and you can find puns throughout his work including in these new poems. Others are bleaker in tone, reflecting the disturbing nature the artworks to which they respond.

Incidentally, these poems were all written after Thomas had, after forty years of service, retired from his post as an Anglican priest. He seems to have experienced something of a crisis after his retirement, perhaps because of the lack of daily routine and regular duties require of him by the Church. He wrote to a friend in 1978, just before his retirement

I am retiring at Easter. I shall be 65. I could stay till 70, but I am glad to go from a Church I no longer believe in, sycophantic to the queen, iconoclastic with language, changing for the sake of change and regardless of beauty.

The form of his religious faith was never straightforward to R.S. Thomas but it did continue to dominate his poetry. He may have given up on the Anglican Church but that does not imply he had given up on religion altogether.

The poem that gives this book is title is a response to one of Henry Moore’s Shelter Sketches. During the ‘Blitz’ the London Underground served as a shelter for Londoners – who not only used the platforms as refuges, but also slept there. Moore produced a group of drawings based on his observations of people in the shelters. They’re are revelation if you think of Moore only as a sculptor but in any case they are very powerful images. I can’t reproduce the particular example that inspired the poem in question here for copyright reasons, but it is dated 1941 and is a sombre image of a figure in what appears to be a restless sleep, presumably during an air raid, with one hand rolled into a fist. Here is Thomas’s poem:

Hand clenched
on the dark dream
where the sleeper wanders
far from the crackling
meadows and the sharp flowers
with their smell
of combustion. Alas
that waking to safety
should be waking also
to survivors poking
among the remains of others
who were too brave to dream.


I’ve enjoyed dipping into this book enormously not only for the “new”poems by one of my favourite poets but also because of the interesting cross-section of influential works of art that it includes, including a number of artists who were completely new to me. If you’re interested in poetry or art you’ll find this book fascinating!

P.S. The cover image is Gorse on a Sea Wall, by Graham Sutherland.

Did Jesus have a Beard?

Posted in Art, Beards, History, Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 20, 2016 by telescoper

I don’t often venture into matters religious via the medium of this blog, but I think I’ll make an exception in this case to address a question that must surely be of prime concern to theological scholars.

The question Did Jesus have a Beard? was provoked by this image which I saw on Twitter this morning:


This is the oldest known depiction of Jesus found in England, a Roman mosaic found at Hinton St Mary, which dates from around AD 350.

All the very old depictions of Jesus that I’m aware of show him clean-shaven. The oldest I have seen in person (in the Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy) shows him likewise beardless (he’s in the middle):



Another famous depiction, in the Basillica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo also in Ravenna, which is dated 520 AD) shows him in a series of scenes in which he appears beardless, but the final scene (of the Passion) shows him with the full beard that became the norm for later portraits and remains so up to the present day. This image is from the 6th Century AD and is very much in line with the we have come to assume Jesus looked like.


As far as I am aware, it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible whether Jesus had a beard or not, so does the fact that the oldest known depictions show him clean-shaven mean that the real historical figure of Jesus didn’t have a beard?

Not necessarily. You have to remember that these early depictions were Roman, so it’s natural that they would have reflected the conventions of the culture at that time, not those of a different country (Judea) more than three centuries earlier. Being clean-shaven would have been regarded as a mark of nobility in Roman society, which probably explains why he was represented in that way.

I will probably get a deluge of corrections and clarifications from people who know a lot more than me about the early Christian church, so I’ll now step back and let the Comments Box do its work!