Art News – 24 October 2012

Here is a wonderful, feel-good piece of art news to remember amongst all of the stories of vandalism and theft that have been recently plaguing the art world.  Our thanks to Mister John Feathers for amassing this amazing collection and his family for donating it to the Los Angeles Public Library so that the world can enjoy and learn from it.

A rare 1944 street map of Los Angeles County, collected by John Feathers

John Feathers spent his life collecting maps and, when he died in February at the age of 56, he had amassed a collection of approximately one million maps.  After he passed away, his family hired realtor Matthew Greenburg to go through the 948 square foot house slated for demolition and rent a dumpster to dispose of the contents.  However, when Greenburg entered the house and saw the incredible collection he couldn’t bring himself to throw everything away.

Realtor Matthew Greenburg holding a shelf with some of the maps from Feathers’ collection.

Greenburg called in the Los Angeles Central Library’s map librarian Glen Creason to evaluate the collection.  He immediately saw that Feathers had collected some very rare maps.  Feathers’ family is donating the incredible collection to the LA Public Library.  The acquisition will launch the library into the top five library map archives in the country, behind only the Library of Congress, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Creason stated that, “This dwarfs our collection — and we’ve been collecting for 100 years.”

Feathers stored his maps all over his home.

The process of cataloging the maps will take up to a year and the shelving to house it is expected to measure 600 feet.  The oldest map in the collection is a map of Europe dated to 1592.  Feathers’ Map Collection will become an incredible resource for researchers worldwide.

Is there any item that you collect and do you hope to one day donate it or pass it on?

To read more on this incredible story: click here.

Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance

“The Skeleton Dance” is a short animated film produced by Walt Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, Les Clark, Roy O. Disney, and Wilfred Jackson.  It was released on the 22nd of August, 1929, and has become an iconic, classic animated short to watch during the Halloween season.  The total budget for the animation was $5,386, which calculates out to $72,886.44 if it had been produced in 2012.

Dancing skeletons, black cats, and other spooky, traditional Halloween imagery are used in the animation.  While we may watch the short and simply enjoy it for a sense of nostalgia, having seen it as children, or find the idea of skeletons dancing in a graveyard humorous and silly, the imagery in “The Skeleton Dance” has an extensive history in Western Art that dates back to the early 1400s.  It is a modern adaptation of the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” which commonly features skeletons dancing and other images of death.

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493, a woodcut illustration for the Liber Chronicarum. This is one of the most well known examples of a danse macabre.

The earliest danse macabre images appear in Paris and were dated to 1424-25.  Unfortunately, this mural at the Saints Innocents Cemetery was destroyed in 1669, when the charnier housing the mural was demolished to widen the road behind it.  These images appear only 75 years after the Black Death swept through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia absolutely decimating the population.  In Europe it is estimated that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the population and anywhere form 75 to 200 million individuals worldwide perished during the 1300s.  A charnier is a structure built on a burial ground that typically housed the bodies of people that died during the cold winter months until they could be buried after the ground thawed in the Spring or Summer.

An illustration of what the charnier at Saints Innocents Cemetery, Paris, France, with the original danse macabre mural would have looked like during the 1400s to mid 1600s.

The people of the Late Medieval period in Western Europe lived in a world that was dark and full of death.  When these macabre images of dancing skeletons became popular, not only had they lived through the plague within recent memory, but they had also experienced a drastic change in climate with the Little Ice Age intensification during the early 1400s, recurring episodes of famine, and social unrest ran rampant through all of Europe.  During this period wars such as the Hundred Years War claimed around 3.5 million lives.

Medieval people lived in a world where death was an ever present and a pervasive entity.  Scholars believe that genres like danse macabre express the fact that sudden death was always just around the corner, thus heightening the need for religious penitence and constant preparation for death.  They also postulate that portraying images of death and skeletons dancing or doing other humorous activities allowed medieval people to gain some amusement where little was available.

Happy Halloween season, everyone!

The Abbot by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538, woodcut as part of his Dance of Death series.

To read more about the Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance: click here.

To read more about danse macabre imagery: click here.

To see a great gallery of medieval images of death: click here.

To read more about the crisis of the Late Middle Ages: click here.