« October 16, 2006 | Main | October 18, 2006 »

October 17, 2006

Experts' Expert: Chuck Close on Hans Holbein


Close's essay appeared in the September 26, 2006 Financial Times, and follows.

    The great illusionist

    There is amazing verisimilitude in Hans Holbein's tiny painting of Erasmus of Rotterdam [above — painted in 1523, it measures 18.7cm x 14.6cm], which goes on display in London this week as part of Tate Britain's Holbein in England exhibition. The fur is furrier than the way any other artist paints fur. There is a great sense of compressed energy packed into a small space.

    It has such presence because the flat background, which is a strong blue colour, pushes the image forward to make it much more confrontational. Holbein has painted both the front and the back of the head (most artists of this period just painted the front), which means it occupies more space and is more lifelike. You know from his sophisticated drawing what is going on underneath the face — from the way the skin is stretched over the teeth or the chin wraps around the bones. Look at the eye socket and how the eye is located — you almost expect it to turn around and stare at you.

    What makes the picture especially human is that Holbein has not been particularly flattering. Compare it with, say, paintings by Lucas Cranach, where all the characters could have come from central casting — everybody looks the same. Holbein's portraits are always very specific personalities.

    Yet I am not that interested in the biographical aspect of these pictures, or in the artist's friendship with Erasmus. I am a kind of dyed-in-the-wool formalist when I look at a painting. I am more interested in the paint handling, the drawing, the composition.

    Painting is such an incredible act, one that transcends the physical reality of what is being portrayed. When a painter looks at another painter's work, even across the centuries, it is like when a magician performs in front of an audience of other magicians. The question arises — do they see the illusion or do they see the device that made the illusion? A painter confronted with someone else's painting is simultaneously aware of the image that was built and how it was built.

    For me, the magic is in seeing how the apparition appeared within the rectangle, what the pictorial syntax is, what the mark-making methods are, and what the touch is. Holbein has an amazing touch — it is almost invisible in something this small. It is as if it has been blown on to the painting by a gust of wind.

    There are no individual brushstrokes that signify one hair. So how did Holbein get his image to look like fur if the marks are not symbolic, if the mark does not stand for fur? By painting the situation rather than the symbols of fur.

    What does that mean? When light falls on something made up of lots of little stuff, it becomes very soft. It hits some of those hairs and falls between the others, casting a shadow. Think of the difference between a telephone pole casting a shadow on a street and then on grass. The shadow on the street has a hard edge, but the minute it hits the grass, the edge becomes soft. You do not have to paint every blade of grass to get someone to understand that they are looking at grass — you paint the situation of grass. It lights differently and shadows fall differently. That is what Holbein has managed to do here.

    Compare this with, say, a painting of an apple tree by Grandma Moses. She will make the trunk and then the branches, and she will hang the apples on it. If you count the apples in the painting, that is how many are on the tree. In reality, some of the apples would be behind others, while some would be hidden by branches, but a naive or folk artist tends to paint symbolically — each mark stands for something.

    The American artist Andrew Wyeth is, in many ways, like a naive painter. You can, for instance, count the blades of grass that Christina is crawling on as she gazes up the hill in "Christina's World" (1948). If you study more sophisticated paint-handling, you won't have one mark equalling one thing.

    Look at how Holbein has painted the velvet of the man's collar. Velvet has lots of little hairs that stick up, and each casts a shadow. Seen together, it makes a soft surface, which breaks in a certain way when folded (silk, on the other hand, folds on a sharp edge).

    We are very sophisticated in reading these things. The paint-handling and pictorial syntax is so much of what our experience of the painting is about. Think about the parallels in literature. Hemingway's distinctive economic use of words can make a simple story of a bullfight riveting because of the way they slam together and trip off your tongue.

    The enduring allure of "Erasmus" can also be attributed to the fact that it is in such good condition. Holbein mixed a lot of oil and varnish into the paint. If you look at the picture from below, you can see that part of the physicality of the piece is that it is glazed with a very liquid medium — unlike Botticelli's application of paint, which is so dry that when you view his canvases you feel as if you need a glass of water. "Erasmus", by contrast, is so rich that it is as if we are watching over Holbein's shoulder while he's creating it. For me, this makes his painting a totally contemporary experience, because it is a record of the decisions he made and is in virtually the same condition as it was when he produced it.

    As well as Holbein's use of paint, his composition is incredible. Everything in the picture is sliding under the shapes of the fur collar, leading your eye up the collar to the big mass that is Erasmus's head. It almost looks like a lily opening up; like a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe — the gap between the collar could be a gully with water rushing through it, the head a dark mountain range. To me, that abstract flat reading is very important to this painting — it comes out at you; some of the shapes resemble something else, and then you settle into the picture for what it really is.


"Holbein in England," sponsored by British Land, is at Tate Britain, London SW1, from Sept. 28 to Jan. 7.

Note: Close's essay is one of five appearing in the current (Autumn 2006) issue of Tate Etc. magazine, in a feature entitled "Hans Holbein: Messages From a Master."

The other authors include Michael Onfray, Jenny Uglow, George Carey and Derek Wilson.

October 17, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Skull Scarf


Designed by Tiffany Alana Wolff.

13" x 60" on 100% silk chiffon.


Use your imagination.




October 17, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Out of print' has lost its meaning


I see the phrase from time to time in book reviews.

"It is out of print and difficult to find."


Reviewers who write stuff like this need to wake up and smell the 21st century.

Here is where you can locate those "out of print and difficult to find" books:

AddALL — www.addall.com/

BookHq — www.bookhq.com/

BookFinder — www.bookfinder.com/

Abebooks — www.abebooks.com/

I've long since lost count of the number of times I've purchased books that were "unobtainable" for reviewers and writers who said as much.

Must be priceless to see their faces when they open the package.

No matter — for me, it's just something I like doing.

October 17, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Swarovski Crystal Glass Nail File


From the website:

    Swarovski Crystal Glass Nail File

    The perfect present for the girl who has everything — this file has it all including the bling of Swarovski crystals.

    Otherwise known as the "Forever File" as this file can be reused over and over again — the grit returns when run under water and left to dry.

    The most glamorous file comes in its own black velvet gift box so you don't even need to worry about wrapping it!

    The most hygienic file on the market as it can be washed.


Res ipsa loquitur.

£20 ($37; €30).

October 17, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Netvibes — 'Customize and share your netvibes experience'


Still in beta but don't let that bother you: I've been in beta since I started and I don't think I'll ever emerge.

No matter.

Stuff you can do on Netvibes appears up top.

I wonder what it would be like to actually be able to use cool stuff like this.

Maybe you'll tell me 'cause I'll never figure it out for myself.

October 17, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Mutant Meat Thermometer


Stuffing happens.

From the website:

    Meat & Oven Thermometer

    Unique meat thermometer also shows you the oven temperature.

    Of course you need to know your roast’s interior temperature to see if it’s fully cooked, but while it’s still cooking, this thermometer will show you if the oven temperature is what you expect it to be (important to know if your cooking time is based on that).

    Heat-resistant silicon safety grip.

    USDA cooking chart on face.



Not for the easily flustered or number-challenged: confusing the two readings and compensating accordingly may result in a very, very crisp crust.

What is the smell of one roast chicken burning?


October 17, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: The neurological basis of out-of-body experiences


Sandra Blakeslee wrote about new research in this field in an article which appeared on the front page of the October 3, 2006 New York Times Science section.

Long story short: What some attribute to paranormal forces can be induced.

Here's the piece.

    Out-of-Body Experience? Your Brain Is to Blame

    They are eerie sensations, more common than one might think: A man describes feeling a shadowy figure standing behind him, then turning around to find no one there. A woman feels herself leaving her body and floating in space, looking down on her corporeal self.

    Such experiences are often attributed by those who have them to paranormal forces.

    But according to recent work by neuroscientists, they can be induced by delivering mild electric current to specific spots in the brain. In one woman, for example, a zap to a brain region called the angular gyrus resulted in a sensation that she was hanging from the ceiling, looking down at her body. In another woman, electrical current delivered to the angular gyrus produced an uncanny feeling that someone was behind her, intent on interfering with her actions.

    The two women were being evaluated for epilepsy surgery at University Hospital in Geneva, where doctors implanted dozens of electrodes into their brains to pinpoint the abnormal tissue causing the seizures and to identify adjacent areas involved in language, hearing or other essential functions that should be avoided in the surgery. As each electrode was activated, stimulating a different patch of brain tissue, the patient was asked to say what she was experiencing.

    Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland who carried out the procedures, said that the women had normal psychiatric histories and that they were stunned by the bizarre nature of their experiences.

    The Sept. 21 issue of Nature magazine includes an account by Dr. Blanke and his colleagues of the woman who sensed a shadow person behind her. They described the out-of-body experiences in the February 2004 issue of the journal Brain.

    There is nothing mystical about these ghostly experiences, said Peter Brugger, a neuroscientist at University Hospital in Zurich, who was not involved in the experiments but is an expert on phantom limbs, the sensation of still feeling a limb that has been amputated, and other mind-bending phenomena.

    ''The research shows that the self can be detached from the body and can live a phantom existence on its own, as in an out-of-body experience, or it can be felt outside of personal space, as in a sense of a presence,'' Dr. Brugger said.

    Scientists have gained new understanding of these odd bodily sensations as they have learned more about how the brain works, Dr. Blanke said. For example, researchers have discovered that some areas of the brain combine information from several senses. Vision, hearing and touch are initially processed in the primary sensory regions. But then they flow together, like tributaries into a river, to create the wholeness of a person's perceptions. A dog is visually recognized far more quickly if it is simultaneously accompanied by the sound of its bark.

    These multisensory processing regions also build up perceptions of the body as it moves through the world, Dr. Blanke said. Sensors in the skin provide information about pressure, pain, heat, cold and similar sensations. Sensors in the joints, tendons and bones tell the brain where the body is positioned in space. Sensors in the ears track the sense of balance. And sensors in the internal organs, including the heart, liver and intestines, provide a readout of a person's emotional state.

    Real-time information from the body, the space around the body and the subjective feelings from the body are also represented in multisensory regions, Dr. Blanke said. And if these regions are directly simulated by an electric current, as in the cases of the two women he studied, the integrity of the sense of body can be altered.

    As an example, Dr. Blanke described the case of a 22-year-old student who had electrodes implanted into the left side of her brain in 2004.

    ''We were checking language areas,'' Dr. Blanke said, when the woman turned her head to the right. That made no sense, he said, because the electrode was nowhere near areas involved in the control of movement. Instead, the current was stimulating a multisensory area called the angular gyrus.

    Dr. Blanke applied the current again. Again, the woman turned her head to the right. ''Why are you doing this?'' he asked.

    The woman replied that she had a weird sensation that another person was lying beneath her on the bed. The figure, she said, felt like a ''shadow'' that did not speak or move; it was young, more like a man than a woman, and it wanted to interfere with her.

    When Dr. Blanke turned off the current, the woman stopped looking to the right, and said the strange presence had gone away. Each time he reapplied the current, she once again turned her head to try to see the shadow figure.

    When the woman sat up, leaned forward and hugged her knees, she said that she felt as if the shadow man was also sitting and that he was clasping her in his arms. She said it felt unpleasant. When she held a card in her right hand, she reported that the shadow figure tried to take it from her. ''He doesn't want me to read,'' she said.

    Because the presence closely mimicked the patient's body posture and position, Dr. Blanke concluded that the patient was experiencing an unusual perception of her own body, as a double. But for reasons that scientists have not been able to explain, he said, she did not recognize that it was her own body she was sensing.

    The feeling of a shadowy presence can occur without electrical stimulation to the brain, Dr. Brugger said. It has been described by people who undergo sensory deprivation, as in mountaineers trekking at high altitude or sailors crossing the ocean alone, and by people who have suffered minor strokes or other disruptions in blood flow to the brain.

    Six years ago, another of Dr. Blanke's patients underwent brain stimulation to a different multisensory area, the angular gyrus, which blends vision with the body sense. The patient experienced a complete out-of-body experience.

    When the current flowed, she said: ''I am at the ceiling. I am looking down at my legs.''

    When the current ceased, she said: ''I'm back on the table now. What happened?''

    Further applications of the current returned the woman to the ceiling, causing her to feel as if she were outside of her body, floating, her legs dangling below her. When she closed her eyes, she had the sensation of doing sit-ups, with her upper body approaching her legs.

    Because the woman's felt position in space and her actual position in space did not match, her mind cast about for the best way to turn her confusion into a coherent experience, Dr. Blanke said. She concluded that she must be floating up and away while looking downward.

    Some schizophrenics, Dr. Blanke said, experience paranoid delusions and the sense that someone is following them. They also sometimes confuse their own actions with the actions of other people. While the cause of these symptoms is not known, he said, multisensory processing areas may be involved.

    When otherwise normal people experience bodily delusions, Dr. Blanke said, they are often flummoxed. The felt sensation of the body is so seamless, so familiar, that people do not realize it is a creation of the brain, even when something goes wrong and the brain is perturbed.

    Yet the sense of body integrity is rather easily duped, Dr. Blanke said.

    And while it may be tempting to invoke the supernatural when this body sense goes awry, he said the true explanation is a very natural one, the brain's attempt to make sense of conflicting information.

    Correction: October 10, 2006. An article in Science Times about a neurological explanation for out-of-body experiences omitted the name of a brain region that produces such sensations. It is the temporal parietal junction. (The angular gyrus, which was named in the article, is part of the temporal parietal junction.)



Here is a link to the abstract of Professor Blanke's September 21, 2006 paper in Nature magazine.

Here is a link to his article in the February, 2004 issue of Brain.

October 17, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chromatherapy Bowl


From the website:

    Circo LED Bowl — Instant ambiance

    Large, brilliant LED bowl is brimming with light and color-changing properties.

    Three different settings provide three dazzling modern light shows.

    Includes two rechargeable AA batteries and charging adaptor.

    Concave top allows you to fill with decorative elements.

    Holds charge for up to 8 hours.

    Ultra-bright long-life LED.


October 17, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

« October 16, 2006 | Main | October 18, 2006 »