Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Tag: Art

Madame Tussaud

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…

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Gilbert Stuart

Have a drink with: Gilbert Stuart
The one dollar bill.”

Ask him about: Chinese knockoffs

In August of this year, news outlets reported that the White House opened the door for the United States Trade Representative (an executive agency that advises on global trade policy) to conduct an investigation of potential Chinese intellectual property abuses. Citing the possibility of significant harm to American interests in the research-intensive technology sector, the President’s memorandum requested examination of laws, policies or practices that may be unreasonable or discriminatory and that may be harming American intellectual property rights, innovation, or technology development.”

China has long been regarded as particularly flexible in the intellectual property space, with one commentator calling local law and practice a “decades-long assault on the intellectual property of the United States and its allies.”

Nor is this a recent development, only relevant to modern topics like copycats, trade secret theft and brand piracy – Gilbert Stuart, who painted the iconic dollar-bill likeness of George Washington we spend every day (making him the most-reproduced artist ever) was the subject of something a lot of modern artists would find disappointingly familiar: unauthorized foreign knockoffs of his work. In 1802 Stuart, frustrated with an opportunist dealer shipping his works off to China for reproduction, went to Pennsylvania court to claim his copyright and seek an injunction.

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The Wellington Statue

Have a drink with: The Duke of Wellington Statue
“A gigantic triumph of bad taste over public opinion.”

Ask it about: Free beer.

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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.

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Dr. Seuss

Have a drink with: Dr. Seuss
Would you, could you, fight the war?

Ask him about: why Yertle the Turtle just might be Hitler.

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We know Theodore Seuss Geisel as a children’s author, a playful champion of absurdity and literacy who gave us green eggs, cats in hats and an absolute lock on what to buy for the high-school graduate in your life.

Because the world seems to love nothing more than the seemingly illicit thrill of getting “secret” material from beloved authors (Harper Lee, what?), there’s been a lot of attention recently to the “new” Seuss book What Pet Should I Get?, produced from a completed manuscript and uncolored artwork found in Seuss’ personal papers.

And this is pretty exciting, particularly since the “inspired by” or “in the style of” children’s literature trend usually serves mostly to illustrate the achievement gap between authors and their posthumous copycats (Seuss and Curious George come to mind).  So the thrill of new work from a master is legitimate.

But it isn’t what I love most about Dr. Seuss.  That’d be the Hitler cartoons.

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Maria Altmann (& Liz Taylor, too)

Have a drink with: Maria Altmann and Elizabeth Taylor
Art lovers, ladies of style, legal pit-fighters.

Ask them about: goddamn Nazis.

Maria Altmann (2)

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.

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Leonardo da Vinci

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

Leonardo da Vinci

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.

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Bruno Schulz

Have a drink with: Bruno Schulz
Writer, artist, cultural property puzzle, cult superstar

Ask him about: making hipsters’ heads explode.

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My husband recently bought a bag from a company whose gleeful tagline was, “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.”  If post-mortem squabbles are really how you know you’ve hit the big time, Bruno Schulz is fist-pumping his way through the hereafter.

A prolific author and artist, Schulz is perhaps best known for his two volumes of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles (also sometimes known as Cinnamon Shops) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Schulz lived in the city of Drohobycz – then part of Poland, now Ukranian – for most of his life, working as a drawing teacher and publishing works which tended towards the erotic and the grotesque.  His art and writing were bold, unsentimental and yet wildly fantastical; Schulz was too grounded to be a surrealist, too oddball for mainstream, talented enough to be thoroughly disarming.

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The Monuments Men

Have a drink with: The Monuments Men
Artists, soldiers, detectives.

Ask them about: giving Dwight Eisenhower an art tour in a salt mine

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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.

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