Putting Art in Perspective

July 8, 2018 § 3 Comments

WayzWays of Seeing (Berger, John)

John Berger was an art critic, novelist, painter and poet, who wrote and compered a BBC series called Ways of Seeing in 1972.  This slim volume of essays was published as a companion piece to the series.

Berger’s objective, as stated in the first few seconds of the first episode of the TV series, was to “question some of the assumptions made about the traditions of European painting.” Unlike any other author on European art that I have read, Berger says little about the paintings and even less about the painters. He focuses instead on the effect the art has, or is intended to have, on its viewer.

Perspective, after all, was the biggest innovation that European oil painting introduced. For the first time in the history of art, the viewer was brought into consideration. He was a stakeholder – in fact, he was the central stakeholder, because it is from his viewpoint that we see the painting. And the viewer – the ideal spectator assumed by the European painter – was definitely a HE. This is clear, Berger points out, from the way women are depicted in oil paintings, as ornaments draped on it, and typically nude (not naked, mind you, because, “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself”) The female body is typically “arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.” This blatantly sexualized objectification is unique to the European art tradition, says Berger: in other cultures, even if “the theme of the work is sexual attraction, it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man.”

Yet women are not the only ‘objects’ celebrated by the oil paintings: “If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents”. Thus the paintings were richly furnished with material possessions: gleaming jewelry, expensive trinkets, satin surfaces, acres and acres of scenic farmland, and “vacuous” mythological or historical subjects painted with a view to conferring some intellectual or moral heft upon the owner of the art.


Gratuitous nudity: Herse awaiting the arrival of Mercury, by Gerhard de Lairesse

Berger’s historical canvas is broader than misogyny alone. Oil painting was not the only world-changing innovation that developed in 15th century Europe. Berger points a finger directly at another – capitalism – as the single biggest influence on the way European oil painting evolved. To Berger, it was “a way of seeing the world ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange”, and it soon found its visual expression in the new exciting field of oil painting.

Berger gives the example of an obscure Da Vinci work (The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist) that achieved sudden fame when it was sold for 2.5 million pounds. The quality of art, for the unschooled viewer, is defined purely in terms of its market value. It is this lure of the open market, according to Berger, that prompted artists (other than a few ‘masters’) to use their skills “cynically” – that is, to depict images not because a subject moved them emotionally and evoked artistic creativity, but purely for the purposes of titillating the senses of prospective buyers. Their intention was not to transport the audience to a new experience (the only honest objective of pure art), but to lazily use well-understood visual cliches to convey the owners’ success and wealth to the world. In that sense, Berger links European oil painting to modern “publicity images” or advertisements, that sell a certain future fantasy to its buyers (whereas the ownership of art serves as evidence of their present social and financial success)

So finally we meet Berger’s evil arch-villain: an exploitative, soul-sucking capitalism, that

survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable

John Berger was a self-professed Marxist. The term is understood today to mean an advocate for the violent overthrow of democratic governments, and an apologist for totalitarian communist regimes. But this is misleading, at least as far as Berger is concerned. He was no card-carrying Bolshie. He was merely someone who found Karl Marx’s framework of dialectical materialism useful for analyzing social history. He looked at history as an evolution, a set of socio-economic processes by which the past morphed into the present, and he analysed these processes in terms of the power structures and material motivations of the parties involved.

Now I do not pretend to be an expert on Marxian theory, but it seems to be as good a theoretical framework as any. It comes with pitfalls and blind spots, but which framework doesn’t? Frameworks, by definition, restrict one’s focus to a limited set of categories, and in doing so, they omit the impact of other categories. One obvious conclusion it is possible to draw from a Marxian analysis of history is an extremely dim view of human progress and achievement. Does that conclusion have any validity? It does. Is it the only valid conclusion possible? Perhaps not.

Perspective is what we learnt from European art. What we see is not THE truth, but A truth, out of many. And where we choose to stand and see things from is a deliberate, even political act. As Berger says, “we only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach”.  Berger’s Ways of Seeing gave me a completely new way to look at European oil paintings.


Wall to Wall Graphics

July 2, 2018 § Leave a comment

wongThe Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures (Wong, Dona M.)

Dona Wong has an impressive resume when it comes to data visualization. Edward Tufte, whose visually sumptuous book I reviewed not long ago, was her thesis advisor at Yale; she has been a graphics editor with the New York Times, strategic director for information design at Siegel+Gale (a brilliantly cool-sounding designation, I must say), and then was graphics director for the Wall Street Journal for several years, and at some point during this stint, she cranked out this book on the Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts and Figures. It is a slim volume, slick, glossy, easy to read, well-presented (which is the bare minimum of what one expects from a book on visualization). To do proper tribute to the subject, I’ve decided that my review should be more visual and less wordy. So here goes:


Regular visitors to this site might have noticed that I have been reading a couple of books about statistics and data visualization techniques of late. You may have even guessed the reasons for this: yes, my work has managed to get in the way of my reading. But I don’t expect this trend to continue.

graphixdonut Yes, I usually read very different kinds of books: ones with lots of text, usually, and very little pictorial content.

book exp

For me, when it comes to books, visual appeal is all very well, but it doesn’t govern my reading experience – it’s the content that I look at closely.

Even Wong acknowledges this, in her very first page: “Ultimately, it is the content that makes the graphics interesting.” It is the content that needs to be thought-provoking, insightful and true.

compositionWong’s book mentions many rules for good graphic design, but I didn’t get wowed by anything I read in here – either because I already knew the rule, or because I wasn’t exactly convinced it was necessary.


In closing, I can’t help taking a crack at the venerable WSJ. It is not a publication I am particularly fond of. Wong is right, of course: content makes the graphics interesting, not the other way around, and graphics on objectionable content is lipstick for the proverbial pig. They may guide me all they want on graphics, but I wouldn’t want to be guided by them on much else.


A Book and its Cover

June 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

EssayssonEssays on the Mahabharata (Sharma, Arvind  ed.)

There are a dozen valid ways of writing about mythology.

I’ve read authors who approach mythology from the perspective of literature – of poetry, say, or fiction, or fantasy. They write stories that parallel the mythological ones. Sometimes the mythological characters appear in contemporary garb and mix it up with local folks, sometimes modern characters are put in similar quandaries as in the myth, and sometimes they come up with slightly subversive, irreverent versions that provoke thought about the motivations of the characters; I’ve seen authors branch off into dissecting myths to analyse the intricate art and science that is oral story-telling, or move from there into kid-lit, and thereon to myth either as pure entertainment or as a vehicle for imparting simple moral lessons.

Elsewhere, I’ve read meditative pieces on how all literature has its roots in mythological stories told by witches and shamans around ancient camp fires, and how a gripping story, told perfectly, is indistinguishable from magic. I’ve read scholars come at myth from the point of view of universal themes and plot lines, and why these themes resonate with so many of us, so intuitively. Some of these scholars take recourse to psychology, and how our brain is wired; and others to social anthropology and the evolution of human civilizations.

There are others still who have thought of, and shrewdly used, mythology in terms of national, or tribal identity: it then becomes inextricably linked with politics and national history. There are others who look in mythological stories as allegorical parables, providing us examples and warnings to guide our life and behavior today, as studies of the human condition.

And finally, there are those of deep religious faith, who take mythological stories either as true history, or as divine revelation.

Any one of these various ways of approaching mythology is incompatible with the rest. To try and view mythology from more than one of these perspectives at the same time is impossible. Specially, those who read mythology as divine truth or national treasure tend to object strongly to outsiders treating their sacred texts as targets for scientific analysis. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to write stirringly, insightfully or grippingly about mythology in any one of these genres.

Essays on the Mahabharata comes in a bright saffron jacket and has on the cover a classical picture of the Bhagavad Gita, the quintessential Hindu text of religious philosophy that occurs in the middle of the Mahabharata. The picture features the Lord Krishna, blue-skinned, garlanded and crowned, looking serene, a blinding halo behind his head, and a kneeling Arjuna by his side, hands out, palms upward in supplication. Other than that, the cover has fragments of Sanskrit text, and the name of the editor, which is Arvind Sharma.

Based on just this information, to which of the above genres do you think this book belongs?

Yet, one must never judge a book by its cover.


The quintessential Mahabharata image (credit: http://www.bhagavad-gita.us)

Arvind Sharma is no guru-exegete expounding on religious truths for his devotees. He is a professor of comparative religion at a Canadian university. The book consists of 23 scholarly essays on a diversity of themes, exactly zero of them connected with religious philosophy or national identity. In other words, this is a set of essays that looks at the Mahabharata –the texts and the traditions – dispassionately, as texts and traditions in the context of the rest of world culture. The Mahabharata is unique, but not unique in its uniqueness.

Thus, the book features essays that analyze the 734 manuscripts examined in the Bhandarkar Institute’s attempt to recreate a Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, and the results of a computer program that searches this text for word and phrase patterns and debates the possibility of multiple authors for the epic; a brilliant essay on the Bhagavad Gita and its place within the Mahabharata tradition; another memorable one on the controversially complex character of Krishna; an expectedly outstanding essay by AK Ramanujan, that speaks of the various thematic repetitions that occur through the text; a thought-provoking one conjecturing that the war was really between the Kurus and the Panchalas. There are essays that speak of local oral traditions in Garhwal and elsewhere, and how these differ from the critical Sanskrit tradition (there should have been many more such essays, in my opinion), translations of medieval plays based on Mahabharata episodes, and essays on how the epic could be viewed in the context of Jainism, Buddhism and the Arthasastra. In my personal estimate, 16 of the 23 essays were eye-opening, even mind-blowing, and taught me things I didn’t already know in decades of knowing the epic, and all 23 represented years of careful, sincere study.

Only eight of the contributors have Indian names, but all of them have studied Indian religions for several years. I realize this makes it harder for religious-minded Hindus to appreciate the book.

Of course a painstakingly acquired scholarly knowledge of a religion is inferior to the intuitive and intimate grasp of it that comes from being born into the religion and surrounded by people who practice it. But when the topic isn’t religion itself, but merely the traditions and trappings of religion, the advantages of the native-born practitioner disappear, and the ability to examine matters in a scientific vein without the baggage of various deeply-held beliefs, taboos and biases becomes a real bonus.

Many Indians tend to dismiss a foreigner’s opinions on the Mahabharata as irrelevant or shallow. Doing so is as big a mistake as judging a book by its cover.

The Story of Art

May 26, 2018 § 1 Comment

uffizi-bookUffizi: Art, History, Collections (Fossi, Gloria)

I have visited art museums for over 20 years, and when I do, I take a long time. I’m the one driving the rest of the group crazy by trailing two rooms behind, reading every citation, listening to every number that the audio guide allows me to punch in.

I am by no stretch of imagination a connoisseur of art. I do not have a highly sensitive and refined aesthetic sense. I merely like a good story, and every piece of art tells a story. Mostly, with European art between 1400-1900, it tells a mythological or historical story, and those are the ones I love most, but even when it is a portrait of some noblemen, or the picture of a woman pouring milk, there is a story being told by the painter, and another story behind it about how and why that painting was created in that particular way. Modern, abstract art has fascinating meta-stories too, but the narrative arc of the art itself is harder to decipher.

I rarely leave a museum without paying a visit to the store. I do not even know why I do it: every book is twice as expensive as outside the museum, every image is available for free on the internet. The trinkets are mass-manufactured in a Chinese factory. Yet I own more souvenirs than memories, and if I drank a cup of coffee for every coffee table book I bought at a museum store, I would be buzzed for days on end.

Here is one of them.

Florence is a beautiful city, and home to some of the best Renaissance art in the world. In this city they congregated under the lavish patronage of the Medicis – religious men like Beato Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, masters like Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Piero della Francesca, and a hundred others, and they erupted joyously into magnificent creativity. But the passion and wealth of the Medici family meant that local painters were only one of the sources for the art. From Rome they procured Raphaels,  from Arundel Hans Holbeins, from Venice, Bellinis and Titians.

The Medicis were no ordinary family. Originally in the textile trade, they went on to own the largest bank in Europe in the 15th century, and political power and prestige were not far away. Three popes hailed from the family, and they maintained an iron grip on the government of the city of Florence for centuries.

In 1560, at the peak of their success, Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned a vast building to serve as the administrative and judicial offices of his government. He hired his friend Giorgio Vasari to design and supervise the construction, and to help with the interior decor. Vasari, besides being an architect, was a dab hand at painting himself, but most importantly, had an encyclopedic knowledge of art. He is best known today as the man who extensively chronicled the Renaissance, writing about the lives of all the great artists of his generation and of the ones immediately before. Cosimo and Vasari both died in 1574, but the building was completed, and became operational soon thereafter as a government office. The Medici family continued to use large parts of it as their personal property (I suspect they used the government similarly). There is a record of a letter received by the office in 1590 with a request that might have seemed odd at the time. A private citizen requested permission to visit the office and walk around, not to transact government business, but to look at the magnificent paintings on the walls, the personal collection of the Medici family, curated for them by Giorgio Vasari. The request was granted, and so were subsequent ones, and this soon became a thing to do for the well-heeled in Florence.


The house that Cosimo built: The Uffizi Gallery in Florence

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The Roots of the World Tree

May 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

proseeddaThe Prose Edda (Sturluson, Snorri)

Norse myth has suffered an interesting fate in modern times. It has inspired the most popular fantasies of our times. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ books and movies, The Game of Thrones, and the blond and blue-eyed Thor of the Avengers, all owe their origin to Norse tales. And yet, I don’t believe Norse mythology itself is popular – people outside Northern Europe wouldn’t know their Frigg from their Freyja.

So allow me to introduce the Icelandic Prose Edda to you.

The Eddas were written down in the 13th century but pertained to an oral story-telling tradition from earlier times. Most of it stemmed from the Viking Age between 800-1100 AD, when Scandinavians explored and pillaged their way across coastal Europe, but some stories are from even older times.

By the 13th century, things had calmed down significantly and the Icelanders had peacefully turned Christian. The Eddas were a way of keeping alive cultural memories and a sense of sharing a common origin with other Scandinavians. The old forms of worship had been discarded, but the stories remained as cultural heritage (like the 11th century Shahnameh in Persia) The gradual religious transition and the large number of alien cultural traditions that the Norsemen had encountered over time, were all put in the melting pot, and out of it came the smorgasbord that we know as the Eddas.


The World Tree: an apt metaphor for world mythology (Pic. courtesy http://www.deviantart.com, Alayna Danner)

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Visual but not Basic

May 7, 2018 § 4 Comments

tufteThe Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Tufte, Edward R.)

Tufte self-published this book in 1980 after every leading publishing house had rejected his design and unique concept for the book. It became an instant commercial hit, and is still today the go-to book on the subject of information design or graphical data visualization. They called him the da Vinci of data, the Galileo of graphics.

Tufte’s concept for the book was straightforward: he wanted it to be (at the same time) economical, accessible to a wide audience, and what he called “self-exemplifying”: the visual design of the book had to embody the intellectual ideas advanced in the book.

What were these ideas? That visual representation had to be well-designed, with “complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency“. That visual graphics are at the center of the design, and words, if necessary, are there merely to tell the viewer how to read the design (not what to read in terms of content). The name of the book is self-explanatory and precisely worded, and the cover isn’t overly decorated. It is what is says on the tin: a book on the visual display of quantitative information. Tufte uses glossy pages, clean, readable typography, and puts the charts at the center of his book. There are charts and graphs on every page, examples from around the world, from business and other domains, charts across centuries – from the pioneering works of William Playfair (and a couple from even earlier), to a depiction of the story of the 2004 baseball season (in which a total of 4,856 data points are represented in a tiny bit of space, employing different font colors, sparklines, words and numbers). Throughout the book, Tufte uses words only to point out the admirable qualities of the charts he shows us on every page, and to articulate epigram-like principles of good graphical design, like

  • “Graphical excellence requires telling the truth about the data”
  • “Graphical elegance is often found in the simplicity of design and complexity of data”
  • “For non-data ink, less is more. For data ink, less is a bore.” (he credits Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Robert Venturi for this one)

A few weeks ago, i had waxed lyrical in these pages about Daniel Levitin‘s “A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics“, which examined the deliberate and inadvertent misuses of statistical analysis. Levitin taught us how to identify common fallacies and standard strategies used by the purveyors of falsehood, and he taught us how we could correctly analyze the data for ourselves.

Edward Tufte’s book is the mirror image of Levitin’s. It is the positive Yang to Levitin’s Yin. The integrity of the data analyst  and the intelligence of the audience are not critical concerns for Tufte: he takes these for granted. Far too much attention has been squandered on suspicion of the analyst’s honesty, he believes, and not enough has been invested on teaching her how to present the data meaningfully.

Much of 20th century thinking about statistical graphics has been preoccupied with the question of how some amateurish chart might fool a naïve viewer. Other important issues, such as the use of graphics for serious data analysis, were largely ignored. At the core of the preoccupation with deceptive graphics was the assumption that data graphics were mainly devices for showing the obvious to the ignorant. The assumption led down two fruitless paths…first, that graphics had to be ‘alive’, ‘communicatively dynamic’, over-decorated and exaggerated (otherwise all the dullards in the audience would fall asleep…) Second, that the main task of statistical analysis was to detect and denounce deception (the dullards could not protect themselves)

 Ay, there’s the rub. This might be the only ‘flaw’ in the book, especially for people who, like me, as dullards when it comes to visual design.

The overarching Tufte maxim is this:

Give the user the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

It is best exemplified by the famous Carte Figurative of Charles Joseph Minard that analyzes Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous winter campaign in Russia. Tufte loves this graphic so much, he prints it thrice in the book and calls it “possibly the best statistical graphic ever drawn“. Take a look.


Charles Minard’s graphic of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

In a single diagram, we get an accurate and intuitive sense for the size of Napoleon’s army, the direction in which the troops were moving, their location on a map of Europe, and even the ambient temperature, at various junctures between the summer of 1812 and spring of 1813. So if you have a good working knowledge of European military history in the Napoleonic years, a reasonable idea of the topology and climate of Western Russia, and the time and patience to look carefully at every dot of ink on the graphic, you will be amply rewarded.

Minard’s chart is like War and Peace condensed on to a single page. And unlike Tolstoy’s 1000-pager, practically no detail on Minard’s graphic is superfluous. Every drop of ink conveys information, usually more than one piece of it. It is a work of art, to be appreciated by connoisseurs – like a TS Eliot poem, not a word out of place, every element super-saturated with meaning: but only appreciable by those who are willing and able to put in the effort.

For the rest of us, we should pause, as we do at a museum, and admire the clever art, but when we’re out there in the streets, we’re better off with Daniel Levitin’s survival guide, learning to ward off the hordes of internet scamsters and fake news fiends out to get us. .

The Shape of the Story

April 29, 2018 § 1 Comment

morphtaleMorphology of the Folktale (Propp, Vladimir)

Propp was a 20th century scholar who studied in great detail the form and structure of Russian folktales. He published The Morphology of the Folktale in 1928, and it was a product of its times.  Just as all matter had been resolved into its constituent elementary particles, all living creatures into kingdoms, classes, orders and species, Propp resolved to find the key to the classification of all folklore. He was aware of the work of Antti Aarne (which later became the basis for the Aarne Thompson classification of folklore motifs) but Propp wanted to go beyond motifs, into the individual atomic ‘functions’ or devices within a motif.

Cruel Stepmother Sends Out Hero on Impossible Mission could be one motif-complex, for instance. For Propp, the motif consisted of a series of ‘functions’. You start with a cruel stepmother – or an evil uncle, a dragon, the emperor, jealous older brothers. The mission could be for the feather of a firebird, a hair from the devil’s beard, the milk of a tigress, or the answer to a riddle. The mission could be given to a stepson – or the village idiot, a youngest child, a prince, a brave hero, a heroine. The path could lie through forests, rivers, mountains, cities, the underworld. On the way, the protagonist might meet an old beggar, an animal, a talking bird, a magic tree or a sorcerer. And so on.

Propp’s insight was this: while there were hundreds of possible motifs, many of which overlapped with others, the number of the constituent functions was relatively small – in fact, he counted merely 31 in total. Using permutations and combinations of the individual choices at each of these 31 stages, he felt he could not merely reconstruct every folk tale that existed, but every conceivable one:

It is possible to artificially create new plots of an unlimited number. All of these plots will reflect a basic scheme, while they themselves may not resemble one another. In order to create a folktale artificially, one may take any A, one of the possible Bs, then a C, followed by absolutely any D, then an E, then one of the possible Fs, then any G, and so on.


The Baba Yaga: By Ivan Bilibin – Self-scanned, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15092

The theory is intriguing, but the book isn’t exactly a page-turner, reading as it does like an academic paper. My main criticism is that it doesn’t address the Why question.

Why do so many folktales from so many parts of the world fit these patterns? Propp doesn’t answer it, but a plausible reason is provided in another book I’d read recently: The Singer of Tales, reviewed here. When the telling of tales is an oral art, performed by resourceful professionals who adapt instantly to audience whims and local tastes, the form of the tale has to be modular with decision points and a limited number of options at every turn. The only thing proved by Propp’s thesis (the uniformity of folk tale construction) is that Russian folk tales (like many others) propagated by oral tradition and professional story-tellers. Stories that are written down do not need to follow set patterns of form.

The fact that all Russian folk tales can fit into the combination of 31 ‘functions’ is an engaging piece of trivia. The more interesting question, in my opinion, pertains to the similarity of content (not form), between folklore from different parts of the world. Why do stepmothers, witches, old women and queens turn out to be evil so often? Why do fathers frequently fail to recognize their sons? Why do birds and snakes talk so often, but not other familiar animals like dogs, cows or horses? Why are heroines given rules to follow, and why do they always break them? What is universal in the evolution of societies and in the nature of humans, that causes themes like these to occur repeatedly across cultures that have had no contact with each other?

Intent only on studying the form of the folktale, Propp doesn’t go too far down this path, though he hints at the gist of it.

The reasons for these substitutions are often quite complicated. Real life itself creates new images which supplant many folktale personages. The ethos of neighboring peoples exerts its own special influence, as does written literature, religion and superstition. The folktale preserves traces of ancient paganisms, customs and rituals. The folktale has gradually undergone a metamorphic process, and these transformations and metamorphoses are subject to certain laws. These processes create a multiformity which is difficult to analyze.

To find the secret behind these transformations of folklore is the difficult-to-analyze mission I’ve set myself. I am fascinated by the shifting shapes of the tales themselves, how they changed across cultures and contexts, and in what ways they remain the same: and why.

Every time I open a book on the study of folklore, I’m alone on a horse, the winding road lies ahead, it leads into an enchanted forest, and the adventure begins…

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