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February 1, 2010

'Extreme connoisseurship' — Up close and personal with a few square inches of Renoir's 'Luncheon of the Boating Party'

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Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik wrote , "Starting on a Tuesday [at Washington, D.C.'s Phillips Collection]...  and continuing through Saturday, I chose a single detail, from a single picture, to dwell on each day. I've rarely had a more exhilarating time."

His first picture was Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party"; his article follows.

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Blake Gopnik Reflects on Glassware in Renoir's 'Luncheon'

There was only one logical place to begin a close encounter with the Phillips.

So, for the umpteenth time, I dragged myself in front of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." I've always found this famous picture coy and stagy, almost saccharine. If impressionism billed itself as the "painting of modern life," I've found the "Luncheon" more like the "faking of modern life." There's a pretense that we're getting a snapshot view of a bunch of friends out for a good time on the Seine in 1881. But it doesn't take long to figure out that each of these friends has been separately costumed and staged, then composited -- Photoshopped, almost -- into a single scene. Maybe that's why the painting's bonhomie between the rich and working classes feels more like conceit than reality.

Try as I may to walk resolutely by, however, one detail in the "Luncheon" always stops me cold: the few gorgeously painted glasses at the front edge of its table.

That glassware has a palpable, material presence like almost nothing else in the picture. Renoir reserved his thickest, fleshiest paint for these glasses, and it functions as a kind of antidote for the staginess of the rest of the painting. The artist is working like a Las Vegas magician, grabbing our attention with something small and striking, distracting us from the trickery behind the larger illusion. The thick paint makes us believe in the presence of that glassware, almost right there for the touching, and that belief rubs off across the canvas. Still lifes have always stood for truth to appearances, and Renoir's does, too.

But another look shows that things aren't that simple. That tactile paint may represent the touchable things in the world, but it also points to the absolutely artificial, painterly means the artist uses to portray them. Early on, a standard insult was that impressionist pictures were like paint-blotched palettes presented as art. Coming close to Renoir's still life, you can almost take that insult as fact: His grapes could be dabs of color waiting to be picked up by a brush; the inside of his red-wine glass looks like a patch of palette where the artist wiped his tools. Renoir's still life is poised on the knife edge -- the palette-knife edge -- between obvious artifice and successful illusion.

Even in purely optical terms, Renoir's still life plays games that come close to deceit. From a distance, and at first glance, I had an easy read of what the wide-mouth glass in front [below]

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is all about: It's full of red-wine dregs, as it should be at the end of a big meal after boating. The burgundy-colored paint Renoir uses in the bottom of the glass is barely found elsewhere in the picture.

Then, coming closer for a second look, I realized that the bottom of the glass is actually built from dabs of that burgundy that come mixed with tiny flecks of brilliant orange, precisely the two pigments that are blended in the bodice of the dog-kissing beauty nearby, whom Renoir went on to marry. Those duplicated pigments must be meant to convey a sense of her reflection in the bottom of the glass -- even though an empty glass wouldn't really reflect such distant colors so purely. Rather than being an actual depiction of an actual reflection, Renoir's doubling of these colors is more like a symbolic act: It stands for the way reflective surfaces can trap objects that are far away from them. It's as though Renoir's girlfriend has been poured bodily into the bottom of the glass, then drunk up along with the wine.

That girlfriend-tinged glass must be the painter's own. Renoir, as the observer of this scene, is of course the one person we don't get to see in it. But his empty place at the table is there in front of us, at its head. All the glassware is painted from Renoir's point of view. It's seen from nearby and right in front and from slightly above, as though the painter has just stood up to take in the party he's hosting.

Except that Renoir's own painting won't let him do such standing up and looking. The glassware may be painted from nearby and in front, but the perspective of the table it sits on, and more or less of this whole scene, is in fact calculated from the point of view of someone standing improbably far off to the right. The observer of that table -- the painter of this scene -- has to be standing toward or past the right edge of the picture, strangely withdrawn from the revelry. (If this table were being viewed from the middle of its near end, its two sides would converge away from us like railway tracks, whereas in fact its sides are painted almost parallel and pointing off to the right.) The kind of lopsided construction used in the "Luncheon" has nothing to do with the snapshot views of impressionism. It has everything to do with the calculations of Old Master art.

The "Luncheon," that is, comes closer to the dramatic artifice of a classic Last Supper than to a real slice of mealtime fun. Which brings us back to the painting's still life. An empty glass on a pure white cloth, with some biscuits and grapes nearby -- in the tradition of Christian art Renoir was trained in, this kind of subject has to evoke an altar cloth set with Eucharistic chalice, wine and bread, all ready for a transubstantiation to occur. According to that reading, looking closely at a few empty glasses has let us in on something crucial about this entire painting: If it doesn't represent things as they are, that's because it isn't trying to. It represents a kind of almost-sacred allegory in which, in a single moment of mystery that's been captured by the painter, the world has been transformed and purified and shaped into a better image of itself. It's a world where sex and class and income barely matter, so long as there's wine to be drunk.

February 1, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Link Mugs

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"Ingenious Link mugs help solve the carrying of numerous mugs without the need of a tray. Each earthenware mug can be plugged into another so they can be lined up, connected together and transported with two hands."

Set of 3: £33.72.

February 1, 2010 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Stoakes-Whibley Natural Index of Supernatural Collective Nouns

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Indispensable.

[via Milena]

February 1, 2010 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Cinderella Table

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A 2005 creation by Dutch designer Jeroen Verhoeven, of CNC-cut plywood.

From the Victoria & Albert Museum website: "For the form of the table Verhoeven was inspired by 17th and 18th century archetypal shapes of tables and commodes that he found in the library of the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam, because he regarded this period as the highpoint of furniture craftsmanship.  He simplified their outlines, then merged them together in a computer to create a fluid three-dimensional form from two-dimensional drawings."

"This process took three months to perfect. The virtual design was 'sliced' and each of the 57 slices, each 80mm thick (a total of 741 layers of plywood), was fabricated by CNC (computer numerically controlled) cutting machines, working on three, and sometimes five axes.  Each slice was cut from the front and from the back to perfect the curves and undercuts, pushing the boundaries of the technology. All the slices were assembled and the entire object, which is a hollow plywood form, was finished by hand."

Limited edition of 20, many of which were purchased by museums while a few remain available from Friedman Benda in New York and Haunch of Venison in London.

Below, 

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the table from behind.

February 1, 2010 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The surface of Enceladus

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Above, south polar vents and plumes captured by Cassini during its close flyby of Saturn's sixth-largest moon on November 21, 2009.

Wrote Emily Lakdawalla on the Planetary Society Blog: "Plumes issue from all four of the large "tiger stripes" at Enceladus' south pole -- from left to right, they trace out Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, and, at the extreme right edge, Damascus sulci. Only a tiny sliver of Enceladus is sunlit; the plumes are visible on the nightside of Enceladus where they have reached high enough elevations to rise out of nightside shadow and receive sunlight. A concentric circular feature lies between Alexandria and Cairo sulci. It may be a chance alignment of fractures, or it may represent some geologic feature, either exogenic (an impact scar) or endogenic (a plume or sink of some sort)."

[via mappeal]

February 1, 2010 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Limited-Edition Albino Moleskine®

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Hardcover,

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240 lined bleach-free pages.

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£19.

[via Pulp]

February 1, 2010 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Time machine: 1905 streetcar going through town

[via Joe Peach]

February 1, 2010 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Maze Heart T-Shirt

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$24.

February 1, 2010 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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