How the Ornate Tapestries from the Age of Louis XIV Were Made (and Are Still Made Today)

“Time is the warp and matter the weft of the woven texture of beauty in space, and death is the hurling shuttle.”

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

For the uninitiated, the warp are the plain vertical threads of a weaving or tapestry, through which the colorful, horizontal weft threads are passed, over and under, on wooden needle-shaped bobbins (or shuttles).

As Beatrice Grisol, Head Weaver at Paris’ venerable Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins remarks, in The Art of Making a Tapestry, above, weavers must possess a love of drawing and an abundance of imagination in order to translate an artist’s vision using silken or woolen threads.

21st century designs are more contemporary, and dying equipment more precise, but Les Gobelins’s weavers’ process remains remarkably unchanged since the days of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

As in the 17th-century, giant looms are strung with white warp threads, in readiness for the threads expert dyers have colored according to the artist’s palette.

The colored weft threads are stored on spools, and eventually portioned out onto the bobbins, which dangle from the backside of the tapestry, as the weaver works her magic, constantly checking her progress in a mirror reflecting both the project's front side and a print of the original design.

It’s worth noting that the pronouns here are exclusively feminine. The lavish tapestries decorating Louis XIV’s court hinted at years of unsung labor by highly skilled craftswomen. Tapestries were the ne plus ultra of princely status, a testament to their owner’s erudition and taste. Louis XIV amassed some 2,650 pieces.

That’s a lot of bobbins, and a lot of hard-working female weavers.

Witness the transformation from artist Charles Le Brun’s 1664 study for the figure who would become the seated youth in The Entry of Alexander into Babylon

…to the fully realized oil on canvas rendering from 1690…

…to its incarnation as a tapestry in the Sun King’s court:

Speeding ahead to the 21st-century, Les Gobelins appears to rival Brooklyn’s Etsy flagship as a pleasantly appointed, well lit, and highly respected Temple of Craft.

View some of the highlights of the Getty Museum’s 2016 exhibition Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV here.

Or grab your heddles and plan an in-person visit to La Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Beautifully Designed Map Shows the Literal Translations of Country Names: “Place of Abundant Fish” (Panama), “Land of Many Rabbits” (Spain), and More

Recently we featured a world map that labels each country not with its name in English, but its name in its own language. That surely proved not just a fascinating linguistic-geographical lesson but, for many, a helpful guide to referring to other lands in a much more sophisticated manner at cocktail parties. But whatever one's motives, one ultimately has to wonder: what do all those country names actually mean? Few to none would have emerged as random assemblies of syllables; nearly all must have started as descriptions, to varying degrees of literalness, of the places they name.

Take, for instance, "Place of Abundant Fish," better known to its people as Panamá and to English-speakers as Panama. Or "Land of Burnt Faces," which many of us whose faces really would get burned if we took a trip there without sunscreen call Ethiopia. Or "Temple of the Soul of Ptah," "He that Striveth with God," and "In the Navel of the Moon," also known as Egypt, Israel, and Mexico.

These names and many others appear on this world map with country names translated literally into English. "I was disappointed by Spain," added German geographer Simon Kustenmacher when he tweeted out the map. "'Land of Many Rabbits'? I expected something related to military..."

Naturally, all manner of arguments immediately erupted beneath Kustenmacher's tweet: arguments over the source languages used, arguments over etymology, arguments over translation, arguments over interpretation. One commenter suggests that the United States of America, on the map simply labeled "The United States of America," actually be called "The United States of the Land of Amerigo Vespucci," the Italian cartographer who inspired the name "America." But then, some Americans might feel a very different variety of disappointment not only that their country's name doesn't mean "The Land of the Free," but that the meaning has already been claimed by Thailand. In creative cartography, as in every other pursuit, you can't please everybody.

You can view the map showing the "Literal Translation of Country Names" in a large zoomable fashion here.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

David Byrne Creates a Playlist of Creative Music From Africa & the Caribbean—or What One Nameless President Has Called “Shithole Countries”

Image by LivePict, via Wikimedia Commons

However many shades of disgust that may have run through me when a certain world leader referred to Haiti and countries in Africa as “shitholes,” within hours, my head was turned in every direction by defiant, creative responses to the morally bankrupt comment that exposed the thinking behind it as completely void of knowledge and respect for the vibrancy of the countries in question. However wearying this display of ignorance, it only threw into higher relief the vitality and resiliency of African and Caribbean countries.

Few American artists have been as tuned into, and influenced by, that vitality as deeply and for as long as David Byrne. His decades-spanning engagement with African, Caribbean, and Latin American music and his founding of world music label Luaka Bop give him as much credibility on the subject as any “colonizer” (as a certain Black Panther character might teasingly say). Byrne wrote on his website in sadness and anger in response to the infamous comment. In an attempt to co-opt the word, he shared a playlist of African and Caribbean music that he called “The Beautiful Shitholes.” The reference may seem trivializing, but his purpose was serious, as he outlined in his full comments.

The question Byrne asks is whether music can “help us empathize with its makers?” Many cultural critics might look around and shake their heads. Byrne leaves the question open. His angry note is direct and directive, but even he admits that it’s a moment to vent, not to resolve a moral crisis. “Got that off my chest,” he concludes, “now maybe I can listen to some music.” Whatever degree of power we may or may not have to change cruel, bigoted policies, we always have the choice to turn our backs to xenophobes and racists and our faces to the rest of the world. Byrne invites us to do just that.

The playlist starts with four tracks from Luaka Bop compilation albums of Cuban music, whose “Afro-Cuban musical identity remained recognizable,” the label’s description notes, for "almost 500 years." Then we’re off into 32 tracks of classic and contemporary African and Caribbean music from well-known legends like Fela Kuti and Amadou & Miriam, young upstarts like Nigerian Afrobeat prodigy WizKid, and the relentlessly funky Tuareg rock stars Tinariwen. Byrne has always seemed to believe in music as a site of universal cultural exchange. His curated playlist and its unsparing title remind us that, while outrage, and action, over injustice is warranted, we can also find solutions in celebration.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Hawking Picks the Music (and One Novel) He’d Spend Eternity With: Stream the Playlist Online

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

In Aspen, Colorado they hold a music festival every year and, in 1995, Stephen Hawking—who joined the cosmos this week—was there. This is where he first heard Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, considered by many the composer’s masterpiece.

“You can sit in your office in the physics centre there and hear the music without ever buying a ticket,” he said. “But on this occasion I was actually in the tent to hear the Gloria. It is one of a small number of works I consider great music.”

In 1992, the physicist was a guest on BBC Radio4’s long-running “Desert Island Discs” program to narrow down a list of music he’d take to the mythical island. Except for two pop songs, he chose classical works. You can listen to a Spotify playlist we’ve made containing the works below, or listen to the full interview with excerpts of the music here.

“I first became aware of classical music when I was 15,” he said in a Cambridge University interview. “LPs had recently appeared in Britain. I ripped out the mechanism of our old wind-up gramophone and put in a turntable and a three-valve amplifier. I made a speaker cabinet from an old book case, with a sheet of chip-board on the front. The whole system looked pretty crude, but it didn’t sound too bad."

“At the time LPs were very expensive so I couldn’t afford any of them on a schoolboy budget. But I bought Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms because it was on sale as a 10” LP, which were being phased out. The record was rather scratched, but I fell in love with the third movement, which makes up more than half the symphony.” However, on the BBC broadcast, he says the first record he bought was Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, and he made that one of his Island selections.

The whole broadcast is worth listening to for Hawking’s very personal connections to all his choices, from Wagner to the Beatles to his all-time favorite, Mozart’s Requiem. Finally the show also asks for Hawking’s favorite book—George Eliot’s Middlemarch—and a Luxury Choice, for which he chooses creme brulee.

His two main pleasures in life, he said, are physics and music.

But his final choice is the most poignant and sums up a life well lived, especially since doctors told him he had two years left…in 1963. He proved them wrong, and then some. As Edith Piaf sings, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Watch “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on The 405,” the New Oscar-Winning Portrait of an Artist

A quick fyi: IndieWire has made available on its YouTube channel "Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on The 405," a 40-minute documentary directed by Frank Stiefel. A portrait of a brilliant 56 year old artist, the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the recent Academy Awards. Here's the gist of what it's about:

Mindy Alper is a tortured and brilliant 56 year old artist who is represented by one of Los Angeles' top galleries. Acute anxiety, mental disorder and devastating depression have caused her to be committed to mental institutions undergo electro shock therapy and survive a 10 year period without the ability to speak. Her hyper self awareness has allowed her to produce a lifelong body of work that expresses her emotional state with powerful psychological precision. Through interviews, reenactments, the building of an eight and a half foot papier-mache' bust of her beloved psychiatrist, and examining drawings made from the time she was a child, we learn how she has emerged from darkness and isolation to a life that includes love, trust and support.

You can watch the complete film online. It will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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H.P. Lovecraft Writes “Waste Paper: A Poem of Profound Insignificance,” a Devastating Parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1923)

Image by Lucius B. Truesdell and Lady Morrell, via Wikimedia Commons

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, as his ever-growing fan base knows, seldom spared his characters — or at least their sanity — from the vast, unspeakable horrors lurking beneath his imagined reality. Not that he showed much more mercy as a critic either, as his assessment of "The Waste Land" (1922) reveals. Though now near-universally respected, T.S. Eliot's best-known poem failed to impress Lovecraft, who, in his journal The Conservative, wrote in 1923 that

We here behold a practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general; offered to the public (whether or not as a hoax) as something justified by our modern mind with its recent comprehension of its own chaotic triviality and disorganisation. And we behold that public, or a considerable part of it, receiving this hilarious melange as something vital and typical; as “a poem of profound significance”, to quote its sponsors.

Eliot's work, Lovecraft argued, simply couldn't hold up in the modern world, where "man has suddenly discovered that all his high sentiments, values, and aspirations are mere illusions caused by physiological processes within himself, and of no significance whatsoever in an infinite and purposeless cosmos." Science, in his view, has made nonsense of tradition and "a rag-bag of unrelated odds and ends" of the soul. A poet like Eliot, it seems, "does not know what to do about it; but compromises on a literature of analysis, chaos, and ironic contrast."

Looking on even this hatchet job, Lovecraft must have felt he'd failed to slay the beast, and so he composed a parody of "The Waste Land" entitled "Waste Paper" in late 1922 or early 1923. This "Poem of Profound Insignificance," which Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi calls the writer's "best satirical poem," begins thus:

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright

You can read the whole thing, including its probably apocryphal half-epigraph from the Greek poet Glycon, at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive. "In many parts of this quite lengthy poem," Joshi writes, "he has quite faithfully parodied the insularity of modern poetry — its ability to be understood only by a small coterie of readers who are aware of intimate facts about the poet."

Lovecraft also tried his hand at non-parodic poetry, though history remembers him much less for that than for striking a more primal chord with his sui generis "weird fiction," whose parameters he was determining at the same time he was savaging his contemporary Eliot. And though scientific progress has marched much farther on since the 1920s, especially as regards the understanding of the human mind and whatever now passes for a soul, both men's bodies of work have only gained in resonance.

via Dangerous Minds

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Enter Digital Archives of the 1960s Fluxus Movement and Explore the Avant-Garde Art of John Cage, Yoko Ono, John Cale, Nam June Paik & More

When it comes to the influence of the arts on everyday life, it can seem like our reality derives far more from Jeff Koons’ “augmented banality” than from the Fluxus movement’s playful experiments with chance operations, conceptual rigor, and improvisatory performance. But perhaps in a Jeff Koons world, these are precisely the qualities we need. Mainly based in New York, and “taking shape around 1959,” notes the University of Iowa’s Fluxus: A Field Guide, “the international cohort of artists known as Fluxus experimented with—or better yet between—poetry, theater, music, and the visual arts.” Big names like John Cage and Yoko Ono might give the uninitiated a sense of what the 60s art movement was all about. An “interdisciplinary aesthetic,” writes Ubuweb, that “brings together influences as diverse as Zen, science, and daily life and puts them to poetic use.”

Of course, there’s more to it than that… but Fluxus artists keep us wondering what that might be, suggesting that ordinary experience and the stuff of everyday life provide all the material we need. Japanese artist Mieko Shiomi describes Fluxus as a “pragmatic consciousness” that makes us “see things differently in everyday life after performing or seeing Fluxus works.”

The definitions of Fluxus, you might notice, can begin to sound a bit circular, maybe because they are entirely beside the point. George Maciunas, who named and co-founded the movement, called Fluxus “a way of doing things." He called it a number of other things as well.

Maciunas’ 1963 “Fluxus Manifesto” makes all the right manifesto moves, paraphrasing Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto” in its promise to “purge the world of bourgeois sickness, 'intellectual,' professional & commercialized culture,” and so on. He begins with a dictionary definition of Fluxus, involving the symptoms of dysentery, and “the matter just discharged.” But the art of Fluxus, aiming at a “non art reality,” seems mild-mannered by contrast with this ironic bluster.

Though it could also be dangerous at times, Fluxus was always a form of play, often seemingly contentless, as in Nam June Paik’s “Zen for Film,” a silent, eight-minute film almost entirely composed of a fuzzy white screen or, in the most notorious example, John Cage’s “musical” composition, 4.33.

Fluxus has become so closely associated with the musical experiments and performance art of Cage and Ono that the centrality of poetry and the visual arts to the movement can go unremarked. Maciunas himself was a highly skilled graphic artist and an aspiring bourgeois proprietor: he first sought to turn Fluxus into a commercial corporation and designed a number of products such as chess sets, posters, and a wooden box filled with assemblages of small art objects created by his fellow Fluxus artists. He later admitted, “no one was buying it.” Of course, plenty of people did, just not in a way that returned on his sizable cash investment. See an “unboxing” of Maciunas’ Flux Box 2, above and try not to think of Wes Anderson.

Like their Dada forebears, Fluxus artists worked in every medium. At the University of Iowa Library’s Fluxus Digital Collection, you can find visual art by Maciunas and his colleagues, like Joseph Beuy’s "Fluxus West" postcard, further up, George Brecht’s Fluxus Games and Puzzles below it, and A-Yo's "Finger Box," above. At Monoskop, you’ll find links to more art, film, music, and books by and about artists like Yoko Ono and Fluxus poet Dick Higgens.

At Ubuweb, you’ll find a Fluxfilm Anthology, dating from 1962-1970 and containing short films by Paik, Ono, Maciunas, George Brecht, and many more (including a 1966 short from John Cale). And at Ubuweb: Sound, you’ll find eight cassettes worth of Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired music, from 1962 to 1992, like the Wolf Vostell “music sculpture,” Le Cri / The Cry, from 1990, above. The Fluxus approach may seem puckishly quaint, even precious, next to the slick hyperreality of Snapchat, but you will experience the everyday world around you quite differently after immersing yourself in the conceptual process-world of Fluxus.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Hawking (RIP) Explains His Revolutionary Theory of Black Holes with the Help of Chalkboard Animations

Stephen Hawking died last night at age of 76. I can think of no better, brief social media tribute than that from the @thetweetofgod: “It’s only been a few hours and Stephen Hawking already mathematically proved, to My face, that I don’t exist.” Hawking was an atheist, but he didn’t claim to have eliminated the idea with pure mathematics. But if he had, it would have been brilliantly elegant, even—as he  used the phrase in his popular 1988 cosmology A Brief History of Time—to a theoretical "mind of God."

Hawking himself used the word “elegant,” with modesty, to describe his discovery that “general relativity can be combined with quantum theory,” that is, “if one replaces ordinary time with so-called imaginary time.” In the bestselling A Brief History of Time, he described how one might possibly reconcile the two. His search for this “Grand Unified Theory of Everything,” writes his editor Peter Guzzardi, represented “the quest for the holy grail of science—one theory that could unite two separate fields that worked individually but wholly independently of each other.”

The physicist had to help Guzzardi translate rarified concepts into readable prose for bookbuyers at “drugstores, supermarkets, and airport shops.” But this is not to say A Brief History of Time is an easy read. (In the midst of that process, Hawking also had to learn how to translate his own thoughts again, as a tracheotomy ended his speech, and he transitioned to the computer devices we came to know as his only voice.) Most who read Hawking’s book, or just skimmed it, might remember it for its take on the big bang. It’s an aspect of his theory that piqued the usual creationist suspects, and thus generated innumerable headlines.

But it was the other term in Hawking’s subtitle, “from the Big Bang to Black Holes,” that really occupied the central place in his extensive body of less accessible scientific work. He wrote his thesis on the expanding universe, but gave his final lectures on black holes. The discoveries in Hawking's cosmology came from his intensive focus on black holes, beginning in 1970 with his innovation of the second law of black hole dynamics and continuing through groundbreaking work in the mid-70s that his former dissertation advisor, eminent physicist Dennis Sciama, pronounced “a new revolution in our understanding.”

Hawking continued to revolutionize theoretical physics through the study of black holes into the last years of his life. In January 2016, he published a paper on called “Soft Hair on Black Holes,” proposing “a possible solution to his black hole information paradox,” as Fiona MacDonald writes at Science Alert. Hawking’s final contributions show that black holes have what he calls “soft hair” around them—or waves of zero-energy particles. Contrary to his previous conclusion that nothing can escape from a black hole, Hawking believed that this quantum “hair” could store information previously thought lost forever.

Hawking followed up these intriguing, but exceptionally dense, findings with a much more approachable text, his talks for the BBC’s Reith Lectures, which artist Andrew Park illustrated with the chalkboard drawings you see above. The first talk, “Do Black Holes Have No Hair?” walks us briskly through the formation of black holes and the big names in black hole science before moving on to the heavy quantum theory. The second talk continues to sketch its way through the theory, using striking metaphors and witticisms to get the point across.

Hawking's explanations of phenomena are as profound, verging on mystical, as they are thorough. He doesn’t forget the human dimension or the emotional resonance of science, occasionally suggesting metaphysical—or meta-psychological—implications. Thanks in part to his work, we first thought of black holes as nihilistic voids from which nothing could escape. He left us, however with a radical new view, which he sums up cheerfully as “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up, There’s a way out.” Or, even more Zen-like, as he proclaimed in a 2014 paper, “there are no black holes.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Lighter Side of Stephen Hawking: The Physicist Cracks Jokes and a Smile with John Oliver

In our tribute to Stephen Hawking earlier today, we discussed the intellectual legacy of the departed physicist, paying particular attention to his groundbreaking work on black holes. The video above is a bit lighter. It just lets you watch Hawking in a comedic exchange with his compatriot John Oliver. If I'm not mistaken, around the 3:46 mark, you can even see him crack a smile. Enjoy.

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Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

Three minutes with the minstrels / Arthur Collins, S. H. Dudley & Ancient City. Edison Record. 1899.

Long before vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and MP3s came along, people first experienced audio recordings through another medium -- through cylinders made of tin foil, wax and plastic. In recent years, we've featured cylinder recordings from the 19th century that allow you to hear the voices of Leo Tolstoy, TchaikovskyOtto von Bismarck and other towering figures. Those recordings were originally recorded and played on a cylinder phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. But those were obviously just a handful of the cylinder recordings produced at the beginning of the recorded sound era.

Thanks to the University of California-Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive, you can now download or stream a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings. "This searchable database," says UCSB, "features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings." You can also find in the archive a number of "personal recordings," or "home wax recordings," made by everyday people at home (as opposed to by record companies).

If you go to this page, the recordings are neatly categorized by genre, instrument, subject/theme and ethnicity/nation of origin. You can listen, for example, to recordings of Jazz, RagtimeOperas, and Vaudeville acts. Or hear recordings featuring the MandolinGuitar, Dulcimer and Banjo, among other instruments. Plus there are thematically-arranged playlists here.

Hosted by UCSB (UC Santa Barbara), the archive is supported by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and other donors.

Above, hear a recording called "Three minutes with the minstrels," by Arthur Collins, released in 1899. Below that is "Alexander's ragtime band medley," featuring the banjo playing of Fred Van Eps, released in 1913.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in November, 2015.

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