Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…
Have a drink with: The Duke of Wellington Statue
“A gigantic triumph of bad taste over public opinion.”
Ask it about: Free beer.
In the 1830’s, the Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in memory and Britain was eager to redecorate. Since few things say classicism, patriotism and self-praise quite like a good monument, the idea arose to honor Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) with a grand commemorative statue.
Depicting the “Iron Duke” on his trusty horse Copenhagen as the pair might have appeared during the Battle of Waterloo, the bronze statue was commissioned of sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt to sit atop a sculptured arch in Hyde Park Corner. Wyatt planned a statue thirty feet high and weighing forty tons, making it the largest equestrian statue in Britain at the time.
He did not plan on all of Britain thinking he was the giant horse’s ass in the whole affair.
Have a drink with: Maria Altmann and Elizabeth Taylor
Art lovers, ladies of style, legal pit-fighters.
Ask them about: goddamn Nazis.
Behavioral advertising is like unexpectedly running into an ex: it seems to know an awful lot about you in ways you forgot you made possible, but for the most part just makes you feel awkward and vaguely regretful.
Thank Facebook for this epiphany, after it pushed the trailer for Helen Mirren’s latest movie on me at least seventeen times in a twenty-four hour period. I’d be pissed at Zuckerberg and crew, too, except that for once technology read me like a cheap novel. (You can lay off with the juice cleanses, though, Mark.)
“Woman in Gold” is the made-for-cinema story of Maria Altmann, her aunt Adele, and one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century. If you’re into history, law, art and Nazis (and who isn’t?), it’s a kicker.
Have a drink with: Leonardo da Vinci
Polymath, painter, engineer, left-handed gay underdog genius
Ask him about: flying psychic unicorn voyages of the mind
The surgeon and writer Leonard Shlain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and died less than a year later, just a week after finishing the manuscript for his book “Leonardo’s Brain.” Released late last year with the help of Shlain’s surviving family, the book purports to use what we know of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work to tell us about the capability, potential and future evolution of the human brain.
Shlain starts with the premise, hardly arguable, that da Vinci stands alone in artistic accomplishment and diversity of skill. It is no exaggeration to claim that few if any humans throughout history have even begun to approach Leonardo’s explosively creative, integrative mode of thinking, and to execute on it so well and so beautifully. To suggest candidates – he tosses out Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Goethe, Freud – is only to drive home the achievement gap.
It’s one thing to say that every artist, ever, was influenced by da Vinci, to suggest that he presaged the discoveries of Newton and Bernoulli, or even to claim he discovered arteriosclerosis (all of which Shlain does).
But that’s small potatoes once you bring up the psychic flying.
Maybe we should back up a little.
Have a drink with: The Monuments Men
Artists, soldiers, detectives.
Ask them about: giving Dwight Eisenhower an art tour in a salt mine
First things first: why make a movie about these guys? Was art looting really a big deal in WWII?
It was a really big deal.
It’s easy to assume that the scattering and destruction of art was the unfortunate side effect of a very destructive European war. It wasn’t. Hitler knew what he was doing in going after art, and he wanted it to hurt conquered peoples very badly.
The Nazis created and supported specific infrastructure to target, hide, sell and destroy works of art, in each case as it most benefited the party agenda with money, power, property or prestige. Efforts were systematic, well-organized and brutal.