Portable art

It’s a great shame that hand-held mobile devices are now known, particularly in North America, as cell phones. There is nothing evocative let alone poetic about cell phone whereas portable, mobile, and hand-held phone manages to capture a sense of ease and novelty. I remember my first one in the mid-1990s which was vastly expensive -thus creating a sense of respect that only fiscal pain can generate- during a period in which some people would routinely acquire dummy devices to give off the appearance of affluence. Mobile phone was almost ironic since the generous dimensions of these early handsets were positively hernia-inducing.

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It must be said that there’s nothing especially attractive about handsets. Unlike bakelite (or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, to give it its decidedly prosaic formal name, though it sounds like a disease or a Romanian brothel madam) telephones of the 1930s, cell phones have never striven to be pretty adornments to our daily lives. Functionality is the end of these apparatuses, which is why there is a whole industry of skins and covers to beautify these singularly unappealing items. Not only that, they’ve become an emblem of the breakdown in normal and healthy social intercourse in society. I have a draconian policy in my classes with respect to cell phones as there’s a time and a place for everything; a classroom is not a cocktail lounge. Most of all, there is the tragedy of cell phones usurping clocks and now computers. We don’t merely communicate using our phones but we also send e-mails, check the weather, check people out, as well as telling the time. We’ve come a long way from my extreme youth when the telephone -now termed the quaintly archaic “landline”- was to be found in the hallway and never, ever in the living room of a house, since conversations were private affairs.

One thing I particularly like about cufflinks, and the same might be said of jewelry in general, is that it is art that can be worn. Many mid-century designers aimed to produce wearable art, a movement discussed by the collector turned dealer Marbeth Schon in her fascinating and detailed study, Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960: The Wearable Art Movement. In an interview talking about collecting, Marbeth sums it up succinctly: ” You can wear it and appreciate it as a work of art. That’s what’s wonderful about jewelry as opposed to maybe a painting—it touches you. That’s what’s unique about it. You can actually wear something that’s unique, beautiful, sculptural, and is a piece of fine art with an interesting history. All of that is in one piece. It’s a wonderful thing to get into”. There is also an accessibility about wearable art since it isn’t necessarily expensive (though, inevitably, in all things touched by our tainted nature’s corruption, profit and greed aren’t excluded from the equation).

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The wearable-art movement attracted some amazingly talented if not eccentric figures. One of the most influential and creative designers was Ruth Roach (1913-1979) pictured above at work in her studio (courtesy of Marbeth Schon’s article on her, here). The chain-smoking artist had a untreatable vision problem which meant she saw two images and would concentrate on one when making her jewelry, which is perhaps one reason for which her work is so striking. Her studio was in the basement of her Iowa home and she would often stay up all night long working on pieces. Like some other mid-century designers, she would produce one-off pieces rather than a line, making each one truly unique and a very special thing to own. Owning a piece of jewelry by Ruth Roach means that you can own -and more importantly, enjoy and show- something that is one of a kind.

 

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I’ve just got back, this very afternoon from an extraordinarily rewarding trip to Chile, paid for using the proceeds of this year’s tax refund. One of the other things I used the refund for was to acquire a pair of cufflinks by Ruth Roach, above, and date to the 1950s. They’re incredibly alluring, crafted out of sterling silver with white-gold-fill backs and incorporating a moss-agate stone. There is an unexpected complementarity between the natural mineral and the crafted silver faces which hold it. I’m a little hesitant to wear something which is essentially invaluable, but one of my personal rules with collecting is that I must wear everything which finds its way to me. Otherwise, there is something masturbatory about the endeavor and sharing raises collecting from being a merely solitary vice.

ImageThe shape of these cufflinks is almost brutalist but there is a gentleness which moderates this impression and which, to my mind, reflects their idiosyncratic creator. I like to think of her working through several nights on this pair which was made for one of her nephews, endowing it with an additionally unique quality. These cufflinks, like a few pairs I own, are museum pieces and I will almost certainly leave them to an institution when I shake off this mortal coil. There is something both humbling and gratifying about being custodians of special, beautiful things which will outlive us and reveling in the reflected glory of an inspired work of art. It might appear to be morbid but we need reminders of our mortality to remind us of our humanity and, more crucially, to forge a sense of perspective into our egotistical spirits. And that, surely, is the ultimate and overriding purpose of art and why we so desperately need it, whether or no we realize this.

 

 

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Eagle eyed

Along with owls, eagles are easily the most recognizable of all birds. One might confuse a crow with a blackbird with a raven, but an eagle is not to be missed or mistaken. It occupies the highest place in the avian food chain exemplified in the curious fact that it alone, out of all the range of birds of prey, does not cast a backward look before swooping down on its victim. Quite simply, it doesn’t have to exercise any such caution. Unfortunately, in a terrible metaphor for the destructive force that is humanity, its threat is humankind in the form of the elimination of its habitat or  via poisonous chemicals which have been unleashed into the environment. Added to this in the UK is egg collectors indulging in their eccentric and illegal pursuit of oology. It’s a bizarre hobby that could only exist in the UK and was the subject of an excellent article in the New Yorker a few months back.

The different aquiline species eat a range of animals from snakes to sheep and there have been reports of dogs being carried off. In parts of southern Europe, some breeds enjoy turtles, dropping the unfortunate creatures from great heights onto rocks in order to shatter their shells. This enterprising habit led to one of the most unusual alleged deaths in history, that of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 455 BC, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock -an entirely natural and understandable error- and released a turtle aimed at his skull. Not content with this quirky demise, fate had another twist in store: the turtle survived unscathed and with its shell intact. There is a helpful illustration of the episode below, from the fifteenth-century Florentine Picture Chronicle by Maso Finguerra. It still doesn’t overshadow the death of the Greek scholar and writer Philitas of Cos, who was so obsessed with erroneous word usage that he forgot to eat during his research and wasted away in around 285 BC. This confirms what many of us have long suspected: pedantry is a health risk. Philitas would have been the ultimate Internet troll.

ImageThe eagle has a venerable tradition of symbolizing nations and deities, featuring on countless coats of arms, flags, and standards from Poland to Mexico. It was the beacon of imperial Rome and the emblem of Jupiter, a fitting sign of colonial aggression being an accomplished predator. Jupiter adopted several animal disguises to come from Olympus and copulate with attractive humans: with Europa he assumed the form of a bull; with Lyda, he was a swan; perhaps the most peculiar is in the form of golden rain which impregnated Danaë, locked in a tower by her husband. There is something quite fitting about carnal lust being literally incarnated in bestial form, but little wonder that the Romans would ultimately reject the seedy and sadistic violence of mythology for the audacious religion of peace and compassion which would flow through its networks like a virus. It was, paradoxically, that great persecutor of Christians, Diocletian, who perhaps did more to facilitate the end of paganism. Diocletian, who ruled as master of the West from 284 to 305, had two radical methods of power: he delegated, ruling with a co-emperor, Maximian named Augustus, and then also two junior emperors, or Caesars; then, he relinquished power in 305, with no coercion to do so, spending his last years tending his garden. It was Diocletian’s unexpected approach which led to the accession of one of the two Caesars, Constantius, to follow him in an uncontested and uncontroversial succession. While Constantius only lived for a few months, this relatively internal stability led to his son to succeed him. This named heir, Constantine, would turn the world on his head with his conversion to Christianity. The eagle would be supplanted by the dove.

ImageJupiter’s tastes were not confined to women and his closest love, exemplified in the fact that he was transported to the heavens and made immortal, alone out of all the god’s lovers, was a beautiful youth named Ganymede. The homoerotic subtext of the myth is not as important as its stress on the homosocial nature of patriarchy; Rome was built on the concept of patria potestas, that every father in society, from the head of the familial unit to the leader of the gods, had authority of life and death over the women and children in his household. Michel Foucault reminds us that this notion evolved directly into the western subordination of women which remains a feature of societies today, albeit subtler than in times past. Rubens’s visually stunning representation of the Rape of Ganymede (1611) -rape here in the old sense of abduction- does not shy away from same-sex sensuality in the close and affectionate grasp of the young man on to the eagle, the quiver of arrows possessing a prominent phallic suggestion. Ganymede, here, seems like a nervous bride before her wedding night rather than the unwillingly kidnap victim of some visual and textual versions. Take the stark counterpoint in Rembrandt’s interpretation of the scene in 1634, below.

ImageNot only is the boy completely unwilling in this painting but his extreme youth -he is a toddler- firmly desexualizes the legend. At the same time, the somber, dark colors evoke menace, as does the evil-looking eagle. The most disturbing element in the painting is to be found in the child’s real distress, for he does more than cry: he actually urinates himself out of fear. Rembrandt’s picture is certainly closer to the savage nature of classical mythology, which took few prisoners over the millennia which it held humans captive to its institutionalized threats.

ImageThe eagle’s reputation has certainly come far since its Roman synonym for dominance. We stand in awe of the size and plumage of this beautiful bird, and the founders of the American Republic adopted the North American bald eagle, above, as the fledgling state’s national emblem in 1782. In doing so, their intention was undoubtedly to create a link with imperial Rome but they unwittingly forged one with Native-American tribes which had venerated this bird as a spiritual messenger between humans and the divine.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are from Taxco, Mexico, a country whose official flag and coat of arms feature an eagle. They’re made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Jaimes. They feature a stylized four eagle heads and are rather distinctive, though their age is difficult to estimate since they could date from the 1950s to the 1980s. A reminder, perhaps, that the eagle is timeless. Unless, that is, humans don’t succeed in making it extinct.