Tag Archives: book suggestions

Squeeze the Source: In Your Face

Warning: contains super-secret library hacks, severed heads, and a horse being killed. Some (illustrated) blood is involved.

Last time, on Squeeze the Source, we covered the basics. This time, we’re going to try a slightly different approach. I’ll tell you literally everything I can think of to fill in the gaps and context of the following images, and your job is to be the very best inquisitive four year old you can be and pick up on one single detail that’s literally right in front of your face. Heh. Remember when I told you last time to not take anything for granted, and throw away all your preconceptions so they don’t get in the way of the obvious? Well there’s no better time than now!

This is a detail of a much longer scroll – Moko Shurai Ekotoba – that was commissioned by a warrior named Takezaki Suenaga. None of these people would have called themselves “samurai” since the word means basically servant. They are warriors, or bushi. Let’s get that out of the way right here. Click on pictures to see them full-screen!

Scroll detail of three people and two severed heads.

Takezaki Suenaga (in green and brown) at a court hearing, seeking rewards for beheading two members of the invasion force. He brought the heads as proof. Adachi Morimune is the judge, here, in red armor on the left. The guy in black is the secretary: it’s thanks to people like him that we have so many primary sources about this. Historians are practically rolling in receipts for severed heads.

The 13th Century warrior class in Japan was very much a headhunting culture. The military government – bakufu – didn’t prevent violence so much as referee it, and regulate it with lots of paperwork. This scroll is about the Mongolian invasion of Japan, and although there are plenty of scenes of Takezaki Suenaga fighting, a large part of the story is an interlude where he goes to court and insists on being given a replacement horse, since his own horse was killed out from under him in battle. The lifestyle of a bushi was all about fighting, taking heads, and getting rewarded for taking heads.

Takezaki Suenaga on his horse. The horse has been hit by several arrows.

The pivotal scene of the horse being killed by arrows.

The bakufu didn’t just dole out rewards like lollipops, though: you had to prove you earned it. You couldn’t just say you killed an important enemy, you had to bring the head. You couldn’t just bring the head, you had to have witnesses. The witnesses couldn’t be your relatives or friends, either. Preferably, they were third-party eyewitnesses, who didn’t have anything to gain if you won your case.

Interesting, huh? Maybe so interesting that you want to read a translation of the scroll itself? You want in on this HOT CIVIL LAWSUIT HORSE-REPLACEMENT ACTION!!! Too bad the Louisville Free Public Library doesn’t have a copy. (It’s a super-specialist history academic book, and expensive, so buying it isn’t going to be much help.) Never fear, for I will show you how to use your sweet library skillz to get even the most elusive of manga-style academic works. (That’s right, it’s published right to left like a manga, so as not to break up or flip the scroll. Hardcore.)

First, you need to know about the book. The title is In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan ; the translator is Thomas Conlan ; the publication year is 2010. Here’s the ISBN: 978-1-885445-13-1 (ISBN is short for International Standard Book Number – it’s a serial number unique to every edition of a book or book-like publication. Use this to be sure you get the exact book you want, and not something with the same title or whatnot. Convenient!) It’s published by the University of Hawai’i Press. Nifty.

Now, with all your information about the book, you can use this to get YOUR library to borrow a book from ANOTHER library so you can read it. Not only are you not limited to all the books in OUR system, you can also read all the books we don’t have that other libraries are willing to lend out! To use The Awesome Power of Interlibrary Loan, just get all the information about a book you want that we don’t have, go to our website, and click on “services” – there you will find a link for “interlibrary loan” and a webform you can fill out to get our library to borrow a book from another library for you. First, though, be absolutely sure that we don’t already have it. You can use it three times a month. Just promise you will use your power for good, and not for evil. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

This is all very well and good, but there’s one visual detail that’s right in your face in this picture that says a lot about this headhunting culture, and its values. Look over all the pictures we’ve seen so far. Notice anything about these gentlemen? (Especially, if not exclusively, the gentlemen, actually.)

A warrior in red armor, on a camp stool with a fan.

Shoni Kagesuke, chillin’ on a camp stool. Have a good close look. What you’re looking for is so obvious that you’ll kick yourself, I swear.

Figured it out yet? Here’s a hint! We’re lucky in that the painter of the scroll in these scenes is actually very precise and naturalistic, in terms of details, like accessories, clothes, hairdos, and hats and such. You’re looking for a detail of personal appearance that’s clearly in all the primary sources like this, but almost never reproduced in period piece movies or TV shows, no matter how accurate they’re trying to be. This is your chance to review the pictures, and look for it. It’s not something subtle, or tricky even. Channel the inner four year old.

Select between the brackets to reveal the answer: [ Adachi Morimune in the court scene, Takezaki Suenaga himself on the horse, and Shoni Kagesuke are all wearing (quite a lot of) makeup. Faces don’t match hands, or other people’s natural skin color. You can see it plainly. Go ahead and look again! Stark white base makeup with red lipstick, and in Shoni Kagesuke’s case, he’s also dyed his teeth a fashionable black. It’s not geisha makeup, It was anybody’s high-class makeup, if you were rich and pretty enough to pull it off. Geisha just happen to still wear it. ] Interesting. I can’t tell if we don’t see it in period-piece movies and such because nobody is expecting to see it, so the costume department doesn’t know (I mean, you didn’t until just now, probably), or if it’s omitted because the producers think that the audience will be distracted if half the cast is wearing it, even if they would have, historically. Also, it’s possible to infer that its use is associated with class and rank – only the higher ranked warriors have it, and not all their followers. In addition, Suenaga is shown wearing it in battle, but not the court case, implying that some warriors specifically wore it into battle, even if they didn’t necessarily for other occasions. Maybe so that they looked their best: it would be a shame if somebody killed you and didn’t think you were high-ranking enough to bother cutting off your head. I doubt the Mongolian forces cared about it, but Takezaki Suenaga and his peers sure did.

That’s why looking at actual primary sources is important. No matter how well-researched representations of the past are, they’re filtered through the culture and expectations of their own present. While you can’t remove your own cultural filters, you can look at the primary sources directly, rather than relying on second-hand versions.

Rosa Bonheur, Animal Painter

Or, the painting food chain and the revolutionary importance of wearing pants.

painting of a bull (title: monarch of the herd) by Rosa Bonheur

And that’s absolutely no bull (It’s a painting of one. By Rosa Bonheur.)

Background – The Hierarchy of Genres

Before the photographic camera caused a crisis in the arts by the early 20th Century resulting in expressionism, impressionism, cubism, and various other modern-isms, there was a well-defined hierarchy of paintings – and therefore artists. Read more about it here at the Tate Glossary. At the very bottom were still life paintings, of household objects and food, and flowers.

Van Gogh Sunflowers

Sunflowers, 1887. According to the Hierarchy of Genres, Van Gogh is a bottom-feeder painter making bottom-feeder paintings of sunflowers. That now sell for absurd millions of dollars. Things Happened between 1699 and now…

Image of the Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David, however, makes super-prestigious history paintings, and is basically a rockstar. This is the Oath of the Horatii, 1784.

For Rosa Bonheur, though, the most important thing to know is the rationale behind the Painting Food Chain: Europeans believed that literally everything belonged in a divinely-mandated Great Chain of Being, from God down to rocks, and humans were the greatest form of life on Earth. Literally, some things were created to be better than others. Have a look:

Great Chain of Being illustration.

An illustration of the Great Chain of Being, from God through angels and humans, and animals, down to rocks. Note that each tier also has higher and lower. Naturally Kings are the highest form of human life (just to either side of Adam and Eve in the middle there, connected with a line to the chain). Convenient. If you’re a King, of course: “hey, I can’t help confiscating your lands and whatever – God put me in charge.” That’s why a coronation ceremony requires clergy, after all. That’s also what’s so revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence. Either George III has the literal God-given right to put down the rebellious colonies and tax the britches right off their butts, OR ditch him and the whole framework by founding your brand-new country on principles of human rights and equality. The bedrock of our founding documents is almost literal heresy. American history is, in large part, the history of the tension between centuries-old social orders of hierarchy and the necessary rejection of hierarchy on which the country was founded. In the words of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

And now you understand almost all European and American history better! Glad we had that little diversion. It’ll help you in history class later, I swear. So, painters of inanimate things and plants were naturally below painters of animals, who were naturally below painters of the human form. But, in order to paint the human form, you have to practice, and spend quite some time observing and sketching actual humans. This means you have to have anatomy lessons, and live nude models. Now, in the days before first-year college students, the only people who would take their clothes off for money were literal prostitutes, or the truly desperate and destitute. Becoming a painter of the human form required seeing people naked and hanging out with sex workers. Because this was off-limits for women, women were denied the education and therefore the chance (with a few exceptions) to break into the highest ranks of painting.

(If you want to take a deep dive, check out this super-crunchy primary source at archive.org – in which Andre Felibien literally lays out the food chain of painters for what would become the French Academy. Hope you’re OK with clawing your way via google translate through some barely-modern French. I can’t really read this, since I took Spanish in High School, but it’s still a fascinating book, nonetheless. When you look at it, you’re looking at the book that shapes European art for the next several centuries, and casts a shadow, even today. If you’ve ever thought of some things but not others as Real Art; if you’ve been to an art museum or gallery; if you’ve ever wanted to know what it took to be a Real Artist; if you’ve ever wondered why some paintings are stupid expensive, but others are cheap – all of this means that the ideas in this book have gotten into your brain – and you haven’t even read it! That’s what people mean when they say something about how books can change the world or how knowledge is power. Now that you know, you can consciously choose to agree or disagree with the book’s view of art. Maybe YOU can be a Real Artist.)

The Hierarchy of Genres did get pushback, right from the start, however: as you can imagine, artists didn’t like being arbitrarily assigned to a lower income bracket forever. Landscape painters started sneaking people into paintings, and portraitists would sneak in allegorical details and landscape.

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or Genre Painting?

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or History Painting?

Paulus Potter - The Young Bull, 1647

Paulus Potter – The Bull, 1647. This painting is actually about life-size, which means it’s enormous.    o_O    Bad Paulus Potter! You and your edging in on history painting turf with huge paintings of bullocks.

Which brings us right up to the middle of the 1800s. Painters were sneaking in attacks on the Great Painting Food Chain, the French Academy had a stranglehold on what art even means, and who gets to be a Real Artist – and then photography was invented, and massively jacked everything up.

Photgraph of Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, 1887.

Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887. Now even if you’re a queen, you can get photographic portraits anyway. Even if you’re NOT a queen, too.

Photography caught on like wildfire, and now you didn’t need a specialized artist to paint people, or anything else, really. The painting world faced a crisis. The hierarchy of genres (and therefore artists) could no longer hold, if anyone with a camera and a darkroom could make images of anything they wanted. Artists pushed harder than ever to break the art food chain, which brings us to the incredible life of Rosa Bonheur…

 

The Artist

Rosa Bonheur was an animal painter, which was traditionally ranked above still life but below portrait and history painting. She went to slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy, and spent enormous amounts of time sketching in the field.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

She went to zoos, and studied exotic animals, and animals she couldn’t get close to in the wild.

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur. Golden Eagles are not known for their tameness and docility.

She was immensely popular during her lifetime, although tastes in art have changed, and she is less remembered now than some of her contemporaries, who were on the fringes of the art world at the time. Like Vincent Van Gogh.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it's got a human in it! I see what you did there.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it’s got a human in it! I see what you did there.

As it turns out, riding horses, tromping across cow pastures, through heather, and forests, is pretty challenging in a corset and ankle-length skirts. Fed up with the restrictions of women’s clothes and gender roles getting in the way of her work and life in general, she got a prescription for pants from her doctor, so she could get an Official Pants Permit so the police wouldn’t arrest her for wearing men’s clothes.

Rosa Bonheur's actual police permit to wear pants.

This is Rosa Bonheur’s literal Police Permit to Wear Pants. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that this exists at all, or the fact that this happened often enough that there’s AN OFFICIAL PRE-PRINTED DOCUMENT FOR THIS. I don’t even. Just let people wear pants. Sheesh. Also: it looks like it was good for only six months at a time.

Anyway, armed with an official Pants Permit, Rosa Bonheur went on to go to farms, and hunting grounds, and all sorts of rugged places, and rode lots of horses (astride, of course, not sidesaddle, because she has a permit to wear pants now). Her most famous painting is The Horse Fair (1855), which she worked on with her friend, Natalie Micas.

Picture of Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair. The artist herself is visible wearing a black hat and a blue shirt, behind the head of the rearing grey horse in the center of the image.

 

Rosa Bonheur went on to continue to wear pants, and paint acclaimed and highly-sought-after paintings – whose outrageous success despite being animal paintings further eroded the Hierarchy of Genres – until her eventual death at age 77 in 1899. She was an animal painter, but with the success and fame of a history painter.

Lithograph of Rosa Bonheur in her studio.

You know you’ve made it when other painters are painting paintings of you as a painter painting paintings. This is a lithograph, though. Possibly based on a painting, but there’s a photograph of her in an almost identical pose.

This one’s a real painting:

Anna Klumkpe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, by Anna Klumpke. You see that medal on her jacket? That’s the French Legion of Honor. She was even promoted to Officer, too. That’s how important she was, during her lifetime.

 

You can also get all the info on Rosa Bonheur straight from the horse’s mouth (or at least really close), and read this book! Rosa Bonheur: the Artists (Auto) Biography by Anna Klumpke; Gretchen van Slyke, translator.

A picture of the cover of the book.

Protip: it’s at the library.

Squeeze the Source!

After all those science-y posts, here’s a return to history, with the very first ever Squeeze the Source challenge!

Last time we did history, the topic was the amazing history of high-heeled shoes. You can be a historian too, if you learn how to squeeze information out of sources. Pretty much everything around you, past and present, has a lot to say about who made it and why, even to the point of throwing light on the society and technology of the world they were made in.

Since squeezing sources is a skill, and requires some practice, I’ll show you how it’s done, and then demonstrate with a few sources, before turning you loose on poor, unsuspecting Caravaggio. (Don’t feel bad for him though: his biography reads like a laundry list of every possible crime against public order you could commit in late Renaissance Italy, punctuated by massive amounts of corruption – hey, it was Renaissance Italy, what did you expect? – and artistic brilliance. Besides, he’s been dead for centuries. He won’t mind.)

Cover of the book Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane.

“Troubled Artist” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Getting into constant brawls with street toughs is one of the least ridiculous and drama-filled things in his life. Why, yes, the library has this book. Why do you ask?

How to Squeeze a Source:

  1. You know things too. Don’t forget that.
  2. Unleash your inner four-year-old.
  3. Don’t take anything for granted, or make assumptions.
  4. Ask the blindingly obvious questions.
  5. Answer everything with equally obvious answers.
  6. Follow those obvious answers to their conclusions.
  7. Collect and connect these conclusions to the broader world.

Demonstration: Coconut Cup

A photo of a coconut cup. carved coconut with silver settings.

A Coconut Cup.

What’s this? A coconut cup.

What’s it made of? Coconut shell and silver.

Fancy or Plain? Really fancy. Carved coconut and lots of silver work. Engraved writing. Some serious time investment and skill went into this. Probably specialized artists involved.

So, writing: more about that? In a Latin alphabet, like English, but I can’t read it. Looks like it’s Dutch maybe?

Where was the cup made? Northern Europe.

Any other details? The carving on the coconut shows a woman with scissors, and a sleeping man in her lap, with soldiers standing by. Sampson and Delilah! Clothes look contemporary to the time the cup was made though. I’d guess 1600s ish.

Artists make art because people buy it. Who’s buying fancy coconut cups? Rich people.

What do I know, based on the coconut cup? Northern Europe in the 1600s has specialized carvers and silversmiths – an economy capable of supporting artisans. Coconuts are special and extra fancy to them, for them to bother encrusting one in silver, and going to all that trouble to decorate it. They also got the coconut from somewhere, so they either have trade networks to the tropics, or someone’s very carefully hoarding the precious coconuts that wash up on the beaches. Religion (Sampson and Delilah – they’d have to assume that others would know what the carving is of), wealth, and trade literally on display in this one object. I’m sure if I understood the language, I’d know even more.

And that’s how you squeeze a source. The catch, however, is in the unexpected stuff. I can’t read the language on the cup, and I don’t know why Sampson and Delilah are so important, in this context. I just don’t have enough cultural knowledge of the social world in which this cup belongs.

The most important thing is this: if you get in a plane, and travel to a different place, you find yourself in another culture, and you will be missing some important information to help you understand the world around you. The most fundamental things are up for grabs, as soon as you find yourself operating in a new cultural environment. Here’s the kicker, though: if you had a time machine, and travel to a different time, even if you stay in your own place, you’ll find yourself in a different culture too. There’s things we take for granted that someone from just 100 years ago would find alien. So always go with what the source is telling you, and don’t let your assumptions blind you to what’s right in front of your face.

 

It’s Your Turn!

Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Italian, Circa 1594.

Cardsharps by Caravaggio

Have a good look, ask the questions, and see what you can learn about Caravaggio’s world.

Ask yourself questions like:

What’s going on in this painting? What objects do you see? Anything recognizable? Materials? Behaviors of people? Clothes? What are people doing? What can you tell about each person in the painting? Their interactions? Who would buy this painting? Why? What does this tell you about Caravaggio’s society?

 

Good luck, and happy source squeezing! (By the way, squeezing lots of sources to make some kind of cohesive Ultimate Source Fruit Punch Medley is called historical research. One source is a nifty thing, but lots of sources, all consistent – that’s the basis for a thesis.)

Mathematical!

Romanesco Broccoli: the mascot of awesome mathematical stuff.

Romanesco Broccoli: the mascot of awesome mathematical stuff.

You deserve cool things. Mathematical things, in the Adventure Time sense. All too often math is treated like a chore, but it is, and should be, mind-blowingly awesome. It could be the coolest subject you ever study, but textbooks seem to have the special quality of sucking the joy out of everything.

Let’s start with an episode of Adventure Time as an example, specifically the one where Finn gets glasses that make him super smart, and invents a device for blowing bubbles that have any number of dimensions. It’s possibly the most concise explanation of higher-dimension geometry I’ve ever seen. A shadow falling on a flat surface is a projection of an object in two dimensions. A two dimensional bubble casts a one dimensional shadow. A three dimensional bubble casts a two dimensional shadow. A four dimensional bubble casts a three dimensional shadow into our three dimensional space. Another way to think about it is like this: every object of the next-highest order of dimensions has an object of the previous order as its “face.”

A square has a line for each of its four faces that define it in two dimensional space. A cube has a square for each of its six faces. A tesseract or 4D hypercube – a four dimensional object – has a cube for each of its eight three dimensional faces. Watch this video, which shows a tesseract rotating so you can get a good look at it and understand how it’s put together. It may help to realize that none of the cubes pass through each other during the rotation. When they squash and stretch, it’s not a small cube passing through a bigger one, but rather the bigger faces popping out towards you and the smaller ones passing in the distance behind. The lines are all the same size, and the angles are all 90 degrees. It’s perspective, not changing actual shape. Eventually you’ll get it.

Meditate on the tesseract.

You like what you see? Spend some time on Vi Hart’s youtube channel, or Numberphile.

Or, read a breezily-written book on mathematics. Here’s Looking at Euclid is one of the best introductions to math that I’ve encountered. Also, this won’t be the last about mathematical mathematics on this blog. Here’s a teaser, in case the broccoli wasn’t a tip-off.