On May 30th, 2018 we learned about

Origins of origami: looking for the the world’s first folded-paper sculptures

“When did people start folding paper like this? What were they trying to make?”

Despite the sincerity of my daughter’s interest, the fact that she couldn’t be bothered to look up from folding her tenth paper crane of the day made it an odd question. As cute as they are, we don’t really need fifty paper birds around the house, suggesting that there’s something intrinsically satisfying about making origami and other paper-folding sculptures. That said, my daughter did raise an interesting point— it’s unlikely that anyone spontaneously folded an entire crane without some kind of precedent to put that idea in their head first. So how did we get from that first creased paper to the sculptures we have today?

Folding precious paper

Unfortunately, as the kami in origami implies, this is an art form based around paper. As tricky as it is to carefully fold a paper sculpture, preserving the resulting artwork is also difficult, and so we no longer have the world’s first attempts at paper-folding to examine for clues. Much of what we know has been inferred indirectly from circumstance, written descriptions or even folded paper depicted in other artwork. At the very least, we can say that origami didn’t exist before paper did, which gets us to 105 AD, when Cai Lun invented paper in China. The new material then traveled to Korea, eventually landing in Japan with Buddhist monks in the sixth century.

When paper first arrived in Japan, it was a rare and exclusive technology. Far from the disposable receipts and tissues we are now surrounded by, paper was expensive and special enough to only be used in religious and formal ceremonies, like purification rituals and weddings. In these cases, it was often folded into abstract shapes, generally copying the geometry of fabric ornaments that were also used in these ceremonies, like a simple zig-zag Shide. Gifts might also be adorned with folded paper, again as an ornament and symbol of value and authenticity.

The first representational origami sculptures were probably butterflies attached to sake bottles at Shinto weddings. Mecho and Ocho were meant to be female and male butterflies respectively, opening the door for the multitude of animal-shaped sculptures that would follow in later centuries. However, most of those designs would have to wait until at least the 1600s, largely due to the availability of paper as a material.

Accessible art form

Once paper was more accessible to the general public, origami became a very popular across Japan. By the 1700s, folded cranes were depicted in other artwork. While most sculptures had previously been taught via oral tradition, the first instruction manual, the “Tsutsumi-no Ki” by Sadatake Ise, was printed in 1764. While other manuals were published in the following years, the next major innovation came in 1950, when Akira Yoshizawa and Sam Randlett developed a set of standardized arrows and other symbols to make instructions clearer for people around the world. These symbols are now commonly found in diagrams and instruction manuals, allowing origami designs to be shared and iterated upon much more easily than before.

With people around the world sharing designs, there has been a lot of innovation in the designs themselves. Early Japanese origami didn’t necessarily avoid making cuts in the paper as it was folded, but many enthusiasts today try to challenge themselves by making geometrically-complex shapes with folds alone. Other branches of origami include wet origami, modular designs and even designs that are inspiring engineers with new ways to build flexible robots in other materials.

Other forms of folding paper

While we don’t have detailed records to prove it, it’s safe to say that people started folding paper outside of Japan as well. Zhezhi is a form of paper-folding from China that generally focused on making geometric objects like boats and hats. In 1993, Chinese refugees introduced people to what is often called Golden Venture folding, wherein many smaller paper triangles are assembled into larger, three-dimensional objects.

Europeans couldn’t resist folding paper either, although its hard to say how they got started. By 1490, images can be found that seem to depict a life-sized version of a paper-folded boat, although it’s hard to be sure based on the single woodcut alone. By the 17th century, German baptism certificates were commonly folded into spiraling forms, although this isn’t to say that folded paper was limited to ritual like it was in Japan. The play “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster mentions children folding paper as early as 1614.

The most famous form of European paper-folding is likely the Pajarita. The bird sculpture isn’t just a popular design, but is the name of a style of paper-folding originating out of Spain. Possibly based on mathematically-folded designs created by the Moors, the Spanish papiroflexia spread across Europe, eventually turning up as a cultural reference point in other media.

Source: History of Origami, Origami Resource Center

On February 8th, 2018 we learned about

Forced perspective fakes sizes and spaces by manipulating a structure’s proportions

It may seem redundant to point out that something in Disneyland is fake, but on a recent trip to the theme park my family was surprised to “discover” visual tricks hidden right in front of us. While the robotic pirates and dancing cartoon characters may be obvious, an architectural concept known as forced perspective manipulates our perception of space in a more subtle way, particularly in its application on Disney’s “Main Street, USA.” It’s a trick that Disney is said to have borrowed from film-makers in Hollywood, but its use extends all the way back to architecture in ancient Greece, not to mention some really tall depictions of people.

Building smaller to look big

Forced perspective is a series of small adjustments a designer can make to create the perception that a space is larger or smaller than it really is. It taps into our brains’ understanding of how parallel lines seem to converge at a distance, and how objects appear smaller when they’re further away. In Disneyland, this means that structures are made to look taller by making their upper extremities smaller, giving the illusion that they’re extending further away from a viewer’s eye than they really are.

There are many examples of this kind of design, many of which are right at the front of the park. Buildings are made to look like they’re three stories tall, but the second and third “floors” are reduced in scale by 3/8 and 1/2 respectively. The Matterhorn has full-sized trees at its base, with smaller model trees higher up to imply a soaring peak. The castle at the center of the park has small upper floors, and thanks to strategic angling on the buildings leading up to it, looks further away, and therefore bigger, than it really is when you first see it.

Faking and fixing ancient architecture

This kind of deception certainly didn’t originate in Anaheim or Hollywood. An example of many of these concepts can be found in the Palazzo Spada in Rome. Architect Francesco Borromini didn’t have room to build the traditional 100-foot-long hallway and colonnade in the palace, so he did the math to figure out what adjustments were needed to make a 26-foot-long hallway appear nearly four times longer than it really was. The tiles in the floor were carefully sized to appear further away. The floor is actually on an incline to imply more depth. Finally, a sculpture that appears to be the size of an adult at the far end of the hall is actually the size of a child, all to create the illusion of a full-length building. All together, it’s an aggressive set of adjustments that make the space look bigger, at least until you try to walk down the hall.

The ancient Greeks employed some similar ideas, but for slightly different effect. With a building like the Parthenon, the goal wasn’t to use forced perspective to make the structure look larger than reality, but to fix what perspective normally does to a large building. Regularly spaced columns, for instance, don’t look regularly spaced when viewed at once. So the Greeks made the columns in the Parthenon wider apart at the corners and closer together in the middle. This way, a viewer looking at one side of the building would see what appears to be a perfectly regular pattern of columns. The columns themselves were adjusted as well, being tilted and made wider in the middle, all so that they appeared to look straight and even when viewed from below.

Resizing statues

That viewing angle doesn’t only matter to buildings, but sculptures as well. Large sculptures, from Michelangelo’s David to the Statue of Liberty, are often created with the understanding that their relative height to the viewing audience will make the heads and shoulders look “too” small. To undo this effect of perspective, these sculptures’ have unnaturally large heads and shoulders so that they would look “right” to someone looking up at them from the ground. In an era of zoom lenses, drone-mounted cameras and more, this may seem a bit arcane, but may help explain why seeing something in person can be so much better than photo or video reproductions.

Source: Forced Perspective in Architecture by Christopher Muscato, Study.com

On January 18th, 2018 we learned about

Updating our spotty, rat-filled understanding of the 14th century plague epidemics

If there’s one thing we can learn from the Black Death in the 14th century, it’s the importance of record keeping in times of crisis. Granted, it was probably hard to focus on documenting what was going on when tens of millions of people were dropping dead for no obvious reason. However, piecing together exactly how the plague spread with the speed it did has been an ongoing question, even long after we’ve come to understand and successfully treat the Yersinia pestis bacteria that actually causes bubonic plague. While rats have long been thought to have carried fleas that carried the bacteria, new investigations are starting to cast doubt on what we thought we knew about these horrifying epidemics.

No rats required

To be clear, Y. pestis is still the cause of death that killed millions of Europeans on more than one occasion. The question is how big a role rats played in transmitting the bacteria to humans. Part of our evidence against the rodents is that they have often play a role in plague outbreaks today, which understandably makes a strong case for their guilt in the 14th century. However, there are some holes in the story of past epidemics, such as no reporting on dead rats turning up in large numbers (as the rodents can be killed by the plague just as we can.) Researchers have also questioned if the flow of infections that we do know about really required rats’ presence in the first place, so they ran some tests to find out.

These experiments obviously didn’t involve risking any human or rat lives. They were conducted as simulations in a computer, allowing changes in different variables to be run over and over, eventually revealing the likelihood of one scenario over another. Obviously, long-shots can still happen, but these simulations showed that fleas biting humans could be passed around quite efficiently with no help from furry friends. In fact, in seven out of nine cities’ virtual infections, the human-flea-human model was a better match for mortality records than scenarios that depended on the movement of rodents.

Looking at leprosy

While these simulations have tried to consider an array of data sources to build a more accurate picture of how the plague spread, some historical gaps have been filled erroneously. Many images that are now archived as contemporary depictions of plague victims are actually pictures of other diseases entirely, such as leprosy. This kind of mistake has become common enough that it’s likely reshaping people’s understanding of what symptoms the bubonic plague actually produces.

Medieval images of leprosy, later labeled as the plague, often include eye-catching lesions on the victims’ skin. It’s dramatic and easily understood as a sign of disease, making these mislabeled images all the more convince to audiences lucky enough to never encounter an actual bubo- the real calling card of the bubonic plague. While some victims could occasionally end up with dark red spots under their skin, most people would end up with a single swollen lymph node in the armpit or neck, depending on where the bacteria-carrying flea bit them. However, these buboes don’t turn up in any drawings or paintings from the 14th century outbreaks. Instead of showing the medical reality of the plague, the few contemporary images directly related to the epidemic focus on its effect on societies, such as a drawing of people burying coffins from 1349, or Jews being burned alive in the 1340s after they were blamed for the disease.

Seeing patterns in the symptoms

Even after the dramatic epidemic of the 14th century, the plague revisited Europe every few decades. Bit by bit, people started to put the pieces together, even making a point to record what an actual plague victim looked like. Images of swollen lymph nodes are directly connected to the plague in imagery from the 15th century, both in artwork and medical documents, some of which suggested lancing buboes to save infected patients.

It’s understandable that people didn’t know what to keep track of before they even knew what was making them sick. But it’s interesting to consider how much information about a curable disease is still hard to be sure of. As someone who was preemptively treated for bubonic plague once as a toddler, I guess I’m just grateful that someone around me knew what to look for at a time when it counted. For what it’s worth, in that case people blamed a flea-bitten cat.

Source: Maybe Rats Aren't to Blame for the Black Death by Michael Greshko, National Geographic

On January 7th, 2018 we learned about

Chemical imaging technique takes apart a painter’s process without injuring the canvas

When you’re in the art museum, seeing that a painting is made in “oil” or “mixed media” sometimes feels more like a formality rather than useful information. Fortunately, a new technique for paint analysis promises to add a lot more useful detail to those descriptions, revealing exactly which paints were used, and even what order they were applied to the canvas. Modern paintings produced with mass-produced commercial paints probably won’t yield many surprises, but by looking at the exact pigments and layering in older paintings, art historians will gain a much richer understanding how these paintings fit into the world that produced them.

The technique is called macroscale multimodal chemical imaging, and is actually a combination of earlier forms of chemical analysis. However, the combination of hyperspectral diffuse reflectance, luminescence and x-ray fluorescence can now produce data that offer more than the sum of their parts. Instead of simply giving researchers a graph of values, the technique uses each form of analysis to create images for each type of pigment used in a painting. The visual relationship of each layer of paint is then made much more obvious, as the strokes, revisions and essentially, choices of the artist are laid out for your eyes to see.

Making sense of materials

Additionally, this technique can identify the chemical composition of each layer of pigment. Knowing how each color was sourced can then provide insight into the difficultly, cost and importance of a painting at the time it was produced. For instance, a rare blue pigment used in a portrait indicates that the patron felt it was worth investing in those materials, helping historians better understand the story behind the painting.

Finally, none of these details need to harm the painting to be analysed. Many ancient objects are quite fragile, and so there’s an interest in avoiding destructive sampling, even if those samples are tiny. When working with ancient, one-of-a-kind artwork, deconstructing the artist’s process without taking apart the painting itself should prove to be a great new addition to historian’s tool kits.

Source: A New Scientific Technique Reveals How Ancient Humans Made Art by Taylor Dafoe, Artnet

On October 23rd, 2017 we learned about

How rocks collected for their aesthetic value contributed to the collapse of a Chinese Empire

My third grader returned from a Girl Scout camping trip this weekend with stories, craft projects, and of course, a new rock. This particular rock was broken into a few pieces that interlocked together, making it a “puzzle” rock, which was interesting, but still a five-pound hunk of geology she doesn’t really have space for in her room. I asked if she had any idea what kind of rock it was, guessing it was some kind of sandstone maybe? The only classification that mattered to my daughter was that it was an interesting rock. It was pretty. It was a rock that caught her eye. My inner nerd sighed, but the art student in me is fine with this. Aesthetics can be important. They can move us to action or to calm serenity. In some cases, things do get out of hand though, like that time when rock collecting helped bring down a 12th-century emperor in China.

From contemplation to craze

Like my third grader’s current rock collection, this story started much more innocently. In 826 AD, Bai Juyi, a regional administrator and poet, was captivated by a pair of heavily weathered rocks near a lake. They were gnarled and craggy, standing upright in the ground, clearly displaying ages of rough treatment by the elements. Bai Juyi took them home, but more importantly wrote a poem about them, transforming them from a personal aesthetic experience into a anchors for a national movement. Other scholars were drawn to his observations about how the rocks marked the power of nature, contrasted the transience of human lives, and inspired quiet, Taoist contemplation.

Naturally, all these ideas about enjoying the stoic beauty of well-worn stones inspired a bit of a fad. Bai Juyi noted the growing fascination, and compared his lithomania to an addiction, suggesting that his compatriots limit their daily rock meditations to a few hours a day. People codified the virtues of rocks, noting their shou, zhou, lou, and tou— their upright stature, furrowed textures, carved channels and deep perforations that allowed air and light to pass through them. Rocks were featured in paintings, often dwarfing any human subjects that happened to be included. So-called “spirit stones” became a fixture of well-educated households, and the civil servants and artists of the time made a point to appreciate carefully selected rocks in terms we usually associate with paintings or poetry. Some stones could fit on a table, but more ambitious collectors stared acquiring pieces of twisted limestone large enough to tower over visitors.

This is where things get complicated. I can insist that my daughter only collect rocks she’s willing to carry on her own, but when an Emperor is the one doing the collecting, it’s hard for anyone to say no. In the 12th century, the Emperor Huizong was a noted artist quite obsessed with building up his rock garden. Details seem to vary depending on the source, with some accounts mentioning bridges being dismantled to allow a large stone to be transported down a river, for instance, but everyone agrees that the Huizong’s collection stressed the Northern Song Empire’s resources. When invaders came calling in 1125 AD, the empire had sunk so many resources into Huizong’s aesthetic interests that it couldn’t properly defend its borders. Sadly, the carefully tended garden did not survive either, sadly undermining the persistence symbolized by the rocks’ themselves.

International interpretation

Thankfully, not all rock collections have spiraled out of control like this. When Chinese lithomania arrived in 15th-century Japan, it was transformed. Rather than celebrating rough, tortured shapes, Japan was enamored with smoother rocks with more gentle silhouettes. These stones were still collected, but were displayed in sand, water or gravel to imitate the look of a miniature mountain. Eventually, Zen Buddhist monks started raking the gravel around stones to reflect the movement of wind and water, but they avoided the frantic collecting that brought down the Northern Song Empire.

As long as aesthetics drive my daughter’s interest in rocks, this second model seems like an easier path to follow. I just worry about the day she requests a large amount of gravel to cover her floor.

Source: The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition, Open Culture

On October 18th, 2017 we learned about

STEM students can, and probably should, do a bit of dancing

When my wife was a graduate student, she helped run a dance troupe, took ballet classes, and performed and help produce a campus-wide dance show. The program ran over an hour, featuring everything from hula to ballroom, lyrical to… something approximating hip-hop. These performers probably weren’t going to give up their day jobs, but they all looked pretty amazing considering their day jobs had them working in some of the world’s most prestigious research labs across a huge range of fields. Nobody questioned the value of dance in these scientists’ lives, and the school community was very supportive of the show each year. A more formalized study from North Carolina State University has come to similar, if more specific conclusions. Even top-notch biochemists benefit from time on the dance floor.

Finding balance with ballet or ballroom

The study was framed against the multitude of calls for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. As technology continues to shape our economies and capabilities, STEM proponents feel that students need to be more thoroughly prepared to have an active role in those fields, or else risk falling behind. However, focus shouldn’t mean ignoring other activities, and it seems that students from all disciplines, including STEM, can improve their lives by participating in creative arts like a dance troupe or class.

The pattern that emerged through surveys and interviews was that dance was both complementary and supplementary to academic work. Rehearsing a specific dance for a class or possible performance requires, and reinforces, self-discipline that is crucial for any form of research. Students reported dance helped them work with larger groups, and it was easier to incorporate multiple viewpoints into their thinking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that dance can be fun, allowing for personal expression and a sense of community, all without the need for a keg of beer. Researchers hope to follow up with a more quantifiable study, looking at how participating in dance affects work performance and personal health.

Mental challenges of choreographed movement

Beyond proving the value of dance in STEM-oriented environments, many previous studies have looked at how dance can benefit individual brains. The rhythmic movement has been found to trigger reward centers, which are further boosted by the accompanying music during a performance. Coordinated efforts in choreographed and spontaneous dance have been found to increase activity in the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, all in order to handle planning, control and movement of the body. Some of this is likely true for other physical activities as well, but in a 2003 study, only dance classes were found to help lower participants’ risk of developing dementia. This is thought to be tied to some of the social aspects of dance that isn’t replicated in a game of golf, for instance.

Where does all this lead us? To Dance Your PhD, of course.

Source: How Dance Can Help Students in STEM Disciplines by Fay Cobb Payton and Matt Shipman, NC State News

On September 28th, 2017 we learned about

Test authenticating paintings’ particular yellow pigment turns up with problems of its own

By the time you graduate from that first batch of eight crayons, you start to learn that just how much variability there is between one hue and it’s closest cousins. Despite similar naming conventions, you wouldn’t arbitrarily substitute Strawberry for Raspberry Red. These differences can even persist in what is supposedly the same color, depending on its formulation. A pigment known as Indian yellow is so particular it’s origins have become the stuff of slightly unbelievable legend. More importantly, the pigment has also become the center of controversy in identifying the dates and possible authenticity of many famous paintings from the early 1900s.

One of the best places to see Indian yellow is in the sunsets painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner. The impressive but not overly-saturated yellow of the late afternoon sun in Caernarvon Castle, for instance, is an example of a pigment that originally became popular with European painters back in the 14th century. Supposedly, it was produced only in Bihar province in India, where cows were fed only mango leaves. The cows’ urine was then collected and dried so that the remaining concentrate could be mixed with oil, creating the subtle hue that many artists desired. This method of production then continued until the early 1900s when it was halted out of concern for the cows, although that also happens to be around the same time when synthetic dyes and pigments were becoming more widely available.

Testing paint with the wrong test

Whether or not it was ever in a cow’s bladder, true Indian yellow is a magnesium salt of euxanthic acid. Its synthetic competitors were generally azo-based dyes, including tartrazine, a compound found in food coloring today. The synthetic, “fake” Indian yellow may have looked the part to most observers, but it was quite different on a molecular scale. This has proved useful to historians and curators, as the type of yellow could be used to prove when a particular painting was created (or at least altered or repaired.) By comparing the chemical signature of a euxanthic acid against an unknown painting, a researcher could tell if it was painted before or after the early 1900s. Theoretically.

This system was recently discovered to have a major flaw. People’s understanding of the two different paints was correct, but the “real” Indian yellow that they were often comparing new samples against was discovered to respond to measurements just like “fake” tartrazine pigments did. Essentially, people were checking for forged or altered paintings by comparing them to another “fake.” While figuring out how this mix-up occurred in the first place will take some time, curators are now looking to double check the paintings already in their collections. Fortunately, only Indian yellow made with euxanthic acid will fluoresce under ultraviolet blacklights. This low-cost test promises a quick alternative method of authentication, at least until a new spectral analysis standard can be established.

Source: The hunt for Indian yellow by Raychelle Burks, Chemistry World

On July 2nd, 2017 we learned about

Protecting artwork for posterity when it’s made from materials prone to dilapidation and putrefaction

In the last week, I’ve had the pleasure of going to an art museum with eight- and four-year-olds, once at the four-year-old’s request. They especially enjoyed the modern and contemporary pieces that felt more open-ended in how they could be interpreted (protip: kids like Nick Cave.) The biggest concern for our visits was reminding everyone that these objects, even the stuffed animals sewn into a suit composed largely of fishing bobs, weren’t there for us to touch. In order for people two thousand years in the future to be able to see these new pieces the way we were able to see an Egyptian sarcophagus, we all needed to do our part to keep things as pristine as possible. This challenge extends beyond kids’ fingers though, as non-traditional materials used in contemporary art are posing huge challenges for art curators.

Replace and repair

Synthetic items like fishing bobs and stuffed animals seem like the should be easy to preserve. Plastics famously take ages to break down, but manufactured goods don’t always hold up the way you expect. A plastic bob might get cracked during transport, or lost as some of the knitted yarn that holds it breaks down. The question then becomes how to repair the piece— if the original item can no longer be purchased, do you find a substitute? How much change can a piece of art accommodate before it’s no longer the same creation? This has been an issue in some art purposely built from manufactured goods, like florescent tube lights in installations by Dan Flavin. In that case, Flavin knew the lights couldn’t be replaced forever, forcing the piece to change over time.

Responding to rot

Some materials turn sculptures or paintings into what amount to performances. Food has been incorporated into art for thousands of years, but when that food isn’t just presented as an image, things can get messy. Dieter Roth embraced this in his biodegradable art, covering photos in cheese to see how they’d change over time. Jim Victor and Marie Pelton sculpt butter in refrigerated cases, knowing that each piece has a short lifespan from the start. When the eventual decomposition isn’t intentional though, art conservationists have a bigger problem. Janine Antoni has made a few copies of a piece called Lick and Lather, each consisting of self-portrait busts made of chocolate and soap. Over time, chocolate pushes some fatty lipids to the surface, adding white, chalky texture to the otherwise brown surface. The soap versions actually prove to be more difficult to preserve, and curators have worked with Antoni reformulate the exact soap formula so that future replacements can hopefully survive the test of time a bit longer.

Recuse from the light

Of course, even traditional materials need special care to hold up over time. While the effects of heat and humidity might be more obvious, even light can damage an oil painting. Ultraviolet light can damage pigments in paint, breaking up specific molecules that end up changing the painting’s colors. Museums therefore do their best to avoid bright light on paintings, but even darkness can cause changes. Linseed oils used to make the oil paint more malleable tend to darken and yellow in darkness, although that particular change is eventually self-correcting after a painting is exposed to light again.

All these changes mean that a lot of planning, thought and even physics and chemistry are needed to keep art objects in good shape over long periods of time. Collectors are now having art appraised not just for their vision and value, but also for how durable the piece may be. In some cases, the solution is to plan ahead and build replacement parts with an original piece, but other times the answer seem to be accepting that change is inevitable. Even if something doesn’t end up looking like the artist originally intended, there’s still a good chance it will be valued and appreciated for generations to come— just ask those Greek sculptors who might barely recognize their own work now that the paint and arms have fallen off.

Source: How Do You Conserve Art Made of Bologna, or Bubble Gum, or Soap? by Jacoba Urist, The Atlantic

On March 16th, 2017 we learned about

Among manipulated mouths, study participants see happiness in the Mona Lisa’s smile

It’s fairly safe to say that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. The image of a woman sitting in front of a distant landscape isn’t conceptually unique, but the details of its execution have made the the subject of great, enduring fascination with artists, historians and even engineers since it was painted. Mysteries abound, with one of the weirder questions apparently focused on one of the central points of the painting— the woman’s smile. Interpretations of the smile cover a wide range of emotions, but a new study involving digital manipulation and detailed response tracking seems to have found new consensus about what is being portrayed. She’s smiling because she’s happy.

Seeing emotion on a spectrum

It’s easy to scoff at such a finding, but there’s more to it than simply pointing to a smile and declaring “happiness.” Closer examination shows a number oddities in the subject’s face, from a lack of eyebrows to an ambiguous tension in the cheeks that make identifying a “true smile” difficult. This has prompted speculation about the the portrait possibly portraying a smirk, hidden sadness, or even… disdain? It’s a lot to unpack, but this latest study tried to tease out what people saw in the Mona Lisa’s face by changing it.

Participants were shown a black and white reproduction of the original painting, as well as eight variations that had subtle changes to the mouth. Some variations were more upturned, and rated as ‘happier,’ while others were more downturned and thus, ‘sadder.’ When compared to this wider range of expressions, the original was still identified as happy 97% of the time. To see how much context may change things, participants were also asked to interpret eight variations that were nearly all on the “sad” side of the emotional spectrum, with the original painting being the most positive option. Again, the original was rated as happy, and in the process a clue was revealed that may help explain people’s reactions.

Slower to see sorrow

When rating the emotional content of each face, people routinely responded faster to happier expressions. While the overall context did seem to shape people’s opinions, possibly shifting the center of what it meant to appear happy, this timing may indicate that there is a neurological bias that anchors us around happy faces. Whether or not this settles anything for the art community isn’t clear, but researchers want to continue the experiments with people with autism and other psychological disorders to see if there’s any difference in how the faces are interpreted. The suspicion is that psychological disorders may involve a gap between sensory input and the ability to properly contextualize that information. Or maybe everyone is just distracted by the lack of eyebrows.

Source: 'Mona Lisa' Is Smiling, Really by Laura Geggel, Live Science

On February 28th, 2017 we learned about

Significant sophistication seen in carved and painted Stone Age slabs

A European painter has been turning heads recently thanks to their innovative use of materials, and how those materials influence the overall composition of their imagery. Animals are rendered not in fine lines, but in bold spots, carved out of stone slabs. The shape of the stone ‘canvases’ play a role too, with natural edges being incorporated as part of the subjects’ silhouettes. There’s enough to these depictions of natural landscapes to arouse our curiosity, but sadly, we’ll never be able to fully know the motivations of the artist, or artists, because they’ve been dead for 38,000 years.

Life drawing in limestone

We do know that whatever drove the creation of these images, their creator worked hard to make them. Making these images probably required first rubbing down the surface of the ‘canvas’ rock to flatten and smooth it out. Then a second tool was used to scrape out each individual cupule, or divot-like mark that made up the various animals depicted. This was as many as 60 individual cupules in a single animal, and more likely took hours to complete. That might not sound like the biggest commitment, but considering this task was being accomplished in a time of hunting and gathering, it shows a decent commitment to a project that didn’t directly increase your lifespan.

Aside from the technical demands of carving in stone, there is a degree of sophistication worth noting in these depictions. As described above, an image of a mammoth is carved in profile, with the top edge of the stone slab being used as the animal’s silhouette, complete with shoulder hump and convex neck curve. The cupules don’t seem to be used as random ornament, but are instead used on animals’ bodies, possibly to suggest the texture of their fur. These techniques were also found at multiple archaeological sites from around the same time period, suggesting that they were not flukes, but part of the local cultural repertoire. Basically, art was enough a part of these people’s lives that they spent time and energy to develop it.

Space for art in the stone age

In a world saturated with images and iconography, that might not seem that unusual. However, the Aurignacian people who created these images hadn’t really been out of Africa for terribly long by the time these caves paintings were created. Their world was one of rocky shelters among snow, ice and glaciers, and so there were probably many aspects of basic survival to be concerned about. Nonetheless, involved cave paintings, carvings, bead and clay figurines point to an early need or desire to create and record the world as the Aurignacian’s saw it, which in an era of selfies and customization, is actually pretty relatable after all.

Source: Prehistoric Pointillism? Long Before Seurat, Ancient Artists Chiseled Mammoths Out of Dots by Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian