The Art of Correspondence.

Moses Soyer letter to David Soyer, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, obtained from: http://www.aaa.si.edu/

Dorothea Tanning to Joseph Cornell, Mar. 3, 1948. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, obtained from: http://www.aaa.si.edu

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (AAA) is dedicated to gathering and preserving papers and primary records of the visual arts in America. It is the world’s largest and most used resource of its kind, with over 16 million items in its collections and growing. The AAA hosts over 110 fully digitized artist collections and extensive oral histories of American artists in the last 200 years. The essential components to an artist’s archive are typically correspondence, diaries, sketchbooks, photographs, printed materials, film and audio recordings. From browsing the AAA’s holdings, I became captivated with the art of correspondence documented within its collections.

From handwritten notes to carefully selected paper punched with typewriter keys, correspondence on paper is a dying form of communication. Our world has been overtaken by fleeting emails and texts consisting of impersonal and uniform fonts, whereas penmanship connects the style and form of written words to a person. Artists especially know how to craft correspondence to include creative visual expression for an even more enriched, clever message.  This has been captured in the exhibits A Thousand Kisses: Love Letters from the Archives of American Art and  More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Another discovery within the AAA, was my fondness for Ray Johnson (1927-1995), painter, collagist, and correspondence artist. While Johnson’s collection is not completely digitized on the AAA site, his work can be seen in others’ collections, including correspondence, art, and articles on his death. Called his “performance art death”, Johnson committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island and was seen backstroking into oblivion. His dark humor and playfulness are pervasive in his art of correspondence. A transcribed interview with Johnson from 1968 sheds more light on his character. From the start, the interviewer begins to ask factual questions in order to establish dates and locations to Johnson’s life. Johnson finds this boring and rightfully becomes difficult while making accusations of a question-and-answer dictated conversation. When the interviewer asks Johnson when he came to New York, Johnson replies with “I’m inclined to think I’m not here.” Quickly after this head-butting of sorts, there is a pause in the interview. Despite this initial sparing, there is a lengthy dialogue that follows.

Ray Johnson letter to Lucy R. Lippard, 1969 May 3. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, obtained from: http://www.aaa.si.edu/

Ray Johnson mail art to Lucy R. Lippard, 1965 June 29. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, obtained from: http://www.aaa.si.edu/

With both the beauty of correspondence, and my lack of personal communication on paper, I am compelled to turn more to the pen, rather than the keyboard, when reaching out in 2012.  If nothing else, my archive is lacking in this essential category.

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Alan Lomax’s Legacy: Alive and Well.

 

The tune, You Got to Take Sick and Die sung by Boyd Rivers, is like a cold stare from fate’s steely face.  Its soulful jeers are a reminder that nobody escapes judgment day.  Just as time will inevitably run out for all, with altruistic deeds comes immortality. An exemplary case of this is the tireless and benevolent toil of Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002) which has earned his life’s work eternal existence here on earth.

Alan Lomax was the world’s leading folklorist and ethnomusicologist, spending his life capturing the sounds, images and video of our collective “intangible heritage.”  At the age of 18 Alan partnered with his father, John Avery Lomax, to document Texan folk music from the prisons, churches, and fields of rural communities for the Library of Congress.  This project was also part of the foundation of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Alan Lomax continued to travel the world documenting folk music for as long as he was able, amassing an archive containing 60 years of his work.  Perhaps most notable of his work was of the American South, ranging from blues and gospel to bluegrass and Appalachian singsong.

Alan founded the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in 1983 to archive his audio recordingsphotographs, videos.  The ACE hosts a research center including a fascinating comprehensive multimedia archive, lesson plans, interviews and discussions, and much more.

Schoolgirls playing ring game. June 25 1965. La Paine, St. Patrick, Dominica. Courtesy of the ACE, obtained from: http://research.culturalequity.org/

Dancing the fandango. August 19 1952.Zeanuri, Pais Vasco, Spain. Courtesy of the ACE, obtained from: http://research.culturalequity.org/

In 2004, a large collection of Alan Lomax’s work was gifted to the Library of Congress, now most of his collections reside in the American Folklife Center, while the LOC hosts digitized photographs online.

Mexican girls, San Antonio, TX. April 1934. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, obtained from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/

Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Conn. February 1935. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, obtained from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/

Mountain woman in the hills near Austin, Texas. Between 1934 – 1950. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, obtained from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/

As a man who understood so much about the essence of mankind, from our joyous exaltation to our heavy-hearted bellows, I’m not sure we understood nearly as much about him.  Various accounts reported Alan Lomax as a southern gentleman with a larger than life force of enthusiasm, although his personal life is somewhat mysterious. Lomax was rightfully deemed a national treasure for his lifelong passion for preserving folk culture. Get to know him better through the Association for Cultural Equity and LOC American Folklife Center.

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A Dramatic Shade of Rose.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has safeguarded the magical and immense moratorium of theatrical treasures that is the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. A glimpse of the imaginative and transporting world of early film has been captured in the lobby cards below.  Lobby cards were smaller than movie posters (11 by 14 inches) and displayed in theater lobbies for promotional efforts.  Typically these cards were created in a set of 6 to 8, capturing several scenes from the movie.  Although this type of promotion is no longer in use, having emerged in the early 20th century and reached extinction by the 1980s, their powers of persuasion are still as vital as ever.  No trailer needed, I’m sold on seeing Blood and Sand, Salomé, and Her Gilded Cage.

Woman and couple. “Blood and sand” 1922. Lobby card. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Billy Rose Theatre Division. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, obtained from: http://www.nypl.org.

Nazimova in Salomé. “Salomé.” 1922. Lobby card. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Billy Rose Theatre Division. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, obtained from: http://www.nypl.org.

Gloria Swanson in Her gilded cage. “Her gilded cage.” 1922. Lobby card. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Billy Rose Theatre Division. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, obtained from: http://www.nypl.org.

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Midcentury Modern: Ghana’s Freedom Fad.

CO 1069-46-23. January, 1957. Description: Exterior of the new Central Library in Accra. Location: Gold Coast, Accra, Ashanti, Sekondi, Ghana. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK. Obtained from: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/africa

The National Archives’[UK] Africa Through a Lens is a collection of thousands of images from  Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, taken from 20 African countries starting in the 1860’s through the 1980’s. This date range spanned from colonization to the independence of many African nations. Looking at the collections, the indicators of change are apparent. Having the most notable signs of this transition is the Ghana collection. Among early images of chiefs, tribesmen and villages are photographs from urban Ghana in the mid 20th century with signs of modernization through infrastructure, especially architecture.

During Ghana’s transition from British rule to independence, 1951-1957, the emergence of ‘tropical architecture’ began and continued through the 1960s.   In Mark Crinson’s book, Architecture and the End of Empire, there is a section dedicated to this movement in Ghana, although it was prevalent in much of Western Africa, and discusses its synonymy with liberation from imperial rule.  The excerpt below, from Crinson, describes the progression:

CO 1069-43-55. Location: Accra. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK. Obtained from: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/africa

“Everything of the colonial period – a period now past, was to be distrusted and even discarded without explicitly acknowledging it as belonging to a colonial past, nor the possibility of a continuing colonial presence or a rising neocolonial future. 

‘Tropical architecture’, it was hoped, was not so much post-imperial as beyond imperialism, part of another world-view all together. It was part of an imagined world where liberation had already happened, without violence and without social unrest, and in which the job now was all to do with modernization, the opening up of another field for architectural territorialization.  As the old modernist rallying cry had put it, ‘Architecture or Revolution’.”

There were two prominent figures who lead the tropical architecture movement in British West Africa: Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.  Fry and Drew, a British couple, were both leading modernist architects in London. During World War II, Fry was sent to Ghana on a military post. Once the war was over, Fry and Drew stayed to contribute their architectural endeavors in Western Africa and give birth to ‘tropical architecture’.

In this new style, buildings were usually built with cement walls and incorporated elements to cope with the heat and humidity, such as cross-ventilation by the use of pierced screens, verandahs, perforated walls, and wide eaves. The use of African designs in detailing was encouraged, commonly seen banisters and window decorations. Hospitals, universities, museums, libraries, municipal centers, and embassies were some of the likeliest candidates to receive an edifice in the style of tropical architecture.

It should be acknowledged that this revolutionary form of architecture was led by British architects. The colonizing nation’s talent was still dominating planning and creation of the prominent facilities for change while enforcing a European system.  With mostly British contractors using African workforces, the recipients of the largest salaries were most certainly taking funds back to the homeland of their former imperial rule. Despite finding possible flaws with the movement of ‘tropical architecture,’ the sleek, linear structures nestled in the lush Ghanaian landscape were beacons of hope and progress.

The National Archive has hosted Africa Through a Lens on Flickr, so that the public can contribute any information regarding the images since much data is missing. Peruse Ghana, along with 25 other African countries, and look out for the signs of liberation.

CO 1069-43-17. Description: Electricity House, Accra, the new Headquarters of the Electricity Department. Location: Accra. Courtesy of The National Archives UK. Obtained from: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/africa/

CO 1069-46-9. January 1957. Description: Schoolboys and a teacher in the grounds of the Opoku Ware Boys’ Secondary School at Kumasi, in Ashanti. This boarding school, in its new and modern building, was established in 1952. Location: Gold Coast, Kumasi, Ashanti, Ghana. Courtesy of The National Archives UK. Obtained from: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/africa/

References:

Crinson, M. (2003). Modern architecture and the end of empire. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.

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Dreamcatching Sketchbooks.

Black Hawk Ledger, plate 4. Tribe : (Lakota Sioux)- Sans Arc. Courtesy of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from: https://plainsledgerart.org/

When keeping a dream diary, one of the crucial components to its accuracy and enriched content is to document first thing after waking, when memory of the dream is fresh in the mind’s eye.  When looking at Native American Ledger Art, there is a similar sentiment to this concept. As Native Americans were being forced to live on reservations while their culture was simultaneously  vanishing, these sketchbooks created by the Plains Indians illustrated ways of life, ceremonies, war stories and events that were captured at the end of an era, when recollection was most vivid.

Koba-Russell Ledger, plate 14. Tribe : Kiowa. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from: https://plainsledgerart.org/

Ledger Art, as it is called since accountant ledgers were often used for these sketchbooks, was created roughly between 1860-1900, when the great buffalo herds disappeared, tribes were forced to relocate to restricted territories, and their children sent to boarding schools.  It was at this time that Plains Indian men artistically adapted from using natural paints on hide applied with bone and paintbrushes, to the confines of notebook sized paper with crayons, colored pencil and water colors.

The Plains Indian Ledger Art Digital Publishing Project  (PILA) has 17 ledger books completely digitized and hosted online to view.  Each ledger is thoroughly documented, with all of its plates presented from front to back cover.  Thanks to PILA, we can take a glimpse into the memory and imagination of the Plains Indians, before their dream was so rudely interrupted.

Rosebud School Album, plate 12; black tailed deer dreamer. Tribe: Lakota (Sioux) – Brulé. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from: https://plainsledgerart.org/

Rosebud School Album, plate 16; one horned buffalo bull dancer. Tribe: Lakota (Sioux) – Brulé. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from: https://plainsledgerart.org/

Koba-Russell Ledger, plate 20; medicine men dance. Tribe : Kiowa. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from: https://plainsledgerart.org/

Bad Eye Sketchbook, back cover. Tribe : Kiowa. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from: https://plainsledgerart.org/

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Good Housekeeping: A Civil Defense Strategy.

The above propaganda film, The House in the Middle, was created in 1954 by the National Paint, Varnish, and Lacquer Association and can be found in the Pelinger Collection of the Moving Image Archive. The goal of the film was to encourage the American public to keep spotless, organized homes with lightly painted exteriors as a civilian defense tactic during the Cold War era.   The reasoning behind this, white paint repels heat and clutter, both inside and outside, will turn your house into a virtual tinder box should an atomic bomb hit your area.  During the film, an “untidy” home is compared to “spic-and-span” home in several blasts, complete with repeats and detailed comparison of how the structures held up to the searing atomic heat wave.   I’m not sure how the creators of The House in the Middle would feel watching the television show Hoarders, but their classification of messy is more than a stretch.  A newspaper in a magazine rack and some yard debris are hardly worthy of inducing a doomsday inferno.  Even if the structure of your house could withstand an atomic blast, the film never addresses how humans might react this event, like, say your flesh instantly melting off.  Perhaps the film was an attempt at soothing the American public’s missile frantic minds and providing a sense of empowerment in a helpless situation, or to simply increase house paint sales.

The House in the Middle was filmed at the famously controversial Nevada Test Site (NTS), which was the stage for America’s nuclear testing.   From 1951 to 1992, 1,021 nuclear detonations occurred on the Nevada Test Site, including 100 atmospheric tests and the remainder underground. During the Cold War, it is estimated 125,000 people were employed at the NTS.  The University of Nevada, Las Vegas has created an in-depth look of the human story behind the NTS with the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project (NTS OHP).  Interviews cover a diverse range of those involved with, or affected by, the NTS.  Over 150 interviews are all documented in transcripts available on the NTS OHP site, supported by UNLV Digital Library.  The voices of the project encompass protestors and peace groups, scientists and engineers, laborors, military, women and the NTS, Native Americans and more.   The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project is an admirable endeavor capturing personal stories from the lives touched by the Nevada Test Site.  Aside from my accolade, the NTS OHP was the winner of 2010 National Council on Public History’s Outstanding Public History Project Award.

Since this post would not be complete without some explosive photographs, the below are several images of nuclear bomb tests on the Nevada Test Site.  The captured blasts evoke awe at their power, enormity, and billowing beauty.  For a split second, we might forget they were intended for.

“Priscilla.” 24 June 1957. Nevada Test Site. Atmospheric Nuclear Testing, 37 kilotons. Courtesy of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Bureau of Federal Facilities, obtained from: http://ndep.nv.gov/boff/

“Dog.” 1 November 1951. Nevada Test Site. Atmospheric Nuclear Testing, 21 kilotons. Courtesy of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Bureau of Federal Facilities, obtained from: http://ndep.nv.gov/boff/

“Baneberry underground nuclear test.” 18 December 1970. Nevada Test Site. Atmospheric Nuclear Testing, 10 kilotons. Courtesy of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Bureau of Federal Facilities, obtained from: http://ndep.nv.gov/boff/

“Stokes.” 7 August 1957. Nevada Test Site. Atmospheric Nuclear Testing, 9 kilotons. Courtesy of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Bureau of Federal Facilities, obtained from: http://ndep.nv.gov/boff/

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Step by Step.

“Man and woman dancing a waltz.” Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885. Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu

At first glance, the waltzing duo photographed in the series above makes one’s heart swoon with nostalgic notions from an embrace lingering in time.  Not to say that the photographer, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), wasn’t a romantic chap as he was definitely a man of character, but his photographic intentions weren’t exactly to conjure tender sentiments.   Rather, his objectives were more scientific: isolate and analyze physical movement of humans and animals alike.  Not forgoing artistic expression, as science aided in the public’s acceptance of the then-provocative mostly nude photographs to later become celebrated as works of art.

“Jumping over a boys back (leapfrog).” Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885. Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu

The photos shown here are all from Muybridge’s collection Animal Locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements, created from 1872 –1885, published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1887.  Animal Locomotion consisted of 781 plates, each plate contained a series of rapid succession, still frame photos in varying angles.  Muybridge posed his models in scenarios ranging from simple to silly, and always in accordance with gender roles of the Victorian era.  Men typically exhibited their athletic prowess, from heaving large rocks to replicating field work, while women often either danced or carried out chores with nymphean grace for the camera.  Ladies handling water in a variety of ways, carrying jars, pouring on each other from buckets, or sprinkling on the ground, seemed to be a favorite aesthetic for Eadweard.

“Two women dancing a waltz.” Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885. Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu

The University of Southern California Digital Library has 701 of the 781 plates from Animal Locomotion for the public to view online.  The clever folks at the USC Digital Library have included animated gifs with each plate, bringing Eadweard’s figures back to life.    Mr. Muybridge, I hope you are as tickled as I am with USC’s resuscitations.

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The Ling Long Girls.

The word ‘ling long’ (elegant and fine) originates from the Ming dynasty.  With the publication of Ling long, the women’s magazine published in Shanghai, China from 1931-1937, the long held definition was transformed to indicate modern female style.

Ling long was a pocket-sized publication for the modern young women of the era, every budding young woman and female student had one in their possession.  While the ‘new woman’ was emerging around the world, this was also occurring in China, especially the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai.   Women were pursing education and sophistication while harnessing their sex appeal and chasing the latest fashion trends.  Much of the magazine’s content was focused on remarkable modern women, dating advice, hobbies, fashion trends, beauty secrets, movie stars, and advertisements of mostly western products.

Differentiating the Ling long girls from their international feminine cohorts was their Chinese culture and loyalty.  Resulting from this mixture of perspectives, Ling long was full of contradictions.  One article might encourage its young readers to never submit to marriage, followed by another providing instructions on how to be a good housewife.  Despite the wavering tone, the virtues of a modern woman were encouraged throughout.  According to Ling long, the modern woman’s appearance and essence were her definitive qualities.  Her outward appearance should be contemporary, but not overly extravagant.  Trumping looks, her brain and spirit where of the utmost importance.  She must never become a ‘flower vase,’ a colloquial term for women who assume the role of a decorative object.  This message to the young women of China in the 1930s is admirable and remarkable.  One must wonder how the content would change, or if it at all, if the publication were in print today.

Columbia University Libraries hosts a diverse group of digital collections .  Of its featured collections, is the digitization of the Ling long women’s magazine, which is the largest archive outside of China. The publication has been widely used by scholars and researchers as it provides a glimpse into the lives of Shanghai women in the 1930s.  Although there is not a translation available for each page, an interpreter is not required.  Most of photographs and illustrations speak volumes.  Enjoy their chat below.

Covers.

Cover. Ling long. 1931. Vol. 7. Page 737. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Cover. Ling long. 1933. Vol. 86. Page 288. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Beauty and Fashion.

Illustration. Ling long. 1932. Vol. 42. Page 1673. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Illustration. Ling long. 1932. Vol. 50. Page 2063. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Cartoons.

Illustration. Ling long. 1932. Vol. 70. Page 936e. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Illustration. Ling long. 1932. Vol. 70. Page 936f. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Ling long Girls.

Photo of 3 women playing hoodlums. 1932. Vol. 71. Page 986. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Women. Ling long. 1935. Vol. 184. Page 1060. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Woman. Ling long. 1935. Vol. 197. Page 2028. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

Woman. Ling long. 1935. Vol. 192. Page 1607. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries, obtained from: http://library.columbia.edu.

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Adonis: Death Does Not Become Him.

The ethereal, statuesque figure below is that of Ted Shawn, founding father of modern dance, in the 1923 play Death of Adonis.  Adonis did not quite meet his demise.  Rather, he transcended mortal deterioration by remaining ever youthful and luminescent in the public domain nearly 90 years on.   Thanks to the New York Public Library for being generous with their supernatural powers.

The NYPL Digital Gallery is a heavenly collection of 700,000 photographs, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints, and more.  Rejoice in it.

Hiller, Lejaren A. “Ted Shawn in Death of Adonis.” 1923. Photographic print. The Denishawn Collection. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, obtained from: http://www.nypl.org.

Hiller, Lejaren A. “Ted Shawn in Death of Adonis.” 1923. Photographic print. The Denishawn Collection. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, obtained from: http://www.nypl.org.

Hiller, Lejaren A. “Ted Shawn in Death of Adonis.” 1923. Photographic print. The Denishawn Collection. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, obtained from: http://www.nypl.org.

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Seasonal Produce Deities.

Harvest provides life, personified in the paintings below.

The artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, is renowned for painting a collection of objects formed together to create a portrait.  Fruit, vegetables, flowers, books, sea creatures, tree roots, and other objects are his subject’s composition.   The collection featured here is the first series of Giuseppe’s “Four Seasons,” created in the mid 16th century.

These images are courtesy of Yale University’s recently digitized vast collections held by its museums, libraries and archives.   The goal of the project is to provide open access freely in the public domain to over 250,000 images and 1,500,000 records.   Yale is the first Ivy League university to undertake such an effort,  read more about the project here.

Praise be to Autumn, the most bountiful god of them all.

Praise also be to Yale’s Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, for providing plentiful fruit in every season.

Autumn.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. “Autumn.” ca. 1550. Painting, oil in canvas. Italian. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, obtained from: http://discover.odai.yale.edu/ydc

Winter.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. “Winter.” ca. 1550. Painting, oil in canvas. Italian. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, obtained from: http://discover.odai.yale.edu/ydc

Spring.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. “Spring.” ca. 1550. Painting, oil in canvas. Italian. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, obtained from: http://discover.odai.yale.edu/ydc

Summer.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. “Summer.” ca. 1550. Painting, oil in canvas. Italian. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, obtained from: http://discover.odai.yale.edu/ydc

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