Works in Progress
If only Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli hadn’t spent six months in prison for having an affair with the wife of a sailor in 1457, he might have been one of the celebrated masters of the Italian Renaissance. Instead, Crivelli served his time, crossed the Adriatic Sea to Croatia, and later painted works for religious orders and provincial gentry in small city-states in northeastern Italy.
Probably because Crivelli left his celebrated hometown, says Stephen Campbell, the Henry and Elizabeth Wiesenfeld Professor in the Department of the History of Art, the artist was left out of Giorgio Vasari’s hugely influential Lives of the Artists—the Who’s Who of Italian Renaissance art, published in 1550—and was consigned to relative obscurity.
Crivelli remained obscure until the 19th century, when collectors like Baltimore’s Henry Walters snapped up the artist’s madonnas and saints, whom he typically depicted with opulent silks, jewels, hanging fruit, burnished armor, and oriental rugs. But by the 1930s and 1940s, modernist critics were dismissing Crivelli and his taste for bling as an aesthetic dead end. Now, Campbell—as guest curator of the painter’s first American exhibition, “Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice,” which ran from October 2015 to January 2016 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston—has helped rehabilitate the artist.
In a review of the Boston show, The New York Times defended Crivelli against the charge of irrelevance, finding elements of his work in 20th-century paintings by American masters Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. Campbell and his collaborators, the Times critic wrote, “have marshaled a memorable argument for Crivelli’s exquisitely crafted potpourris … Their revisionism should inspire.”
That’s exactly the kind of re-examination of Crivelli that Campbell was hoping for. “I’m trying to make the case that Crivelli’s work is actually sophisticated, self-aware pictorial practice,” rather than an exercise in naive over-the-top indulgence, he says. While the artist’s works are graced with wit, novelty, and originality, he says, many 20th-century museum-goers thought Crivelli’s art smacked of “late Victorian bad taste.” But that’s only because modernist tastemakers declared the sumptuous to be unfashionable and ornament a bad word.
An alternative version of the Boston exhibition, “A Renaissance Original: Carlo Crivelli,” is on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore through May 22, with several paintings by the artist’s contemporaries working in the same region.
Echoes of a Death
In her 2012 book, Life in Debt, Clara Han—associate professor in the Department of Anthropology—wrote about domestic life in the lower-income working class neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, with a novelist’s eye for detail and a determination not to reduce people to stereotypes.
Now Han is writing a study of life in another, quite different Santiago neighborhood, in a book she plans to title Echoes of a Death. The 20-square-block area, which she calls “Z” to protect its residents, is one of several where heavily armed police controlled by the military are deployed in Chile’s version of the war on drugs.
Some similar studies of these areas have focused on revenge killings, patterns of gang membership, and drug trafficking. But Han said that sensational accounts only make matters worse. “Sociological studies critiquing inequality paint pictures so perverse that they are taken up by the state and used to legitimatize police occupation,” she says. Instead, she hopes to describe “with a level of subtlety and complexity” a place “where the social fabric is constantly being torn in serious ways.”
While many residents are in prison, she says, they still remain part of the fabric of the neighborhood—if only through smuggled smartphones and Facebook postings. Conflicts in the cellblocks can spill over into the neighborhood, and vice versa.
When the mother of a boy who was stabbed learned that his assailant was about to be released, Han says, she complained loudly about it on the street. Neighbors invited the woman into their home to “reduce the intensity of effects surrounding a violent death.”
“It’s an incredibly volatile situation in the way that prison life and everyday life are completely meshed into each other,” says Han, who has been conducting research in Santiago since 1998. For example, when a relative is incarcerated, families find they are obligated to send food and supplies to cellmates. Another example is the underground economy that serves as a lifeline for some who, Han says, may store or deliver drugs in order to pay escalating rents or mounting medical bills. The police, meanwhile, are viewed as an occupying army rather than a protective force.
Thinking, Hard and Easy
It’s a question that has long fascinated Jonathan Flombaum, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences: Why is thinking hard?
When we’re wrestling with calculus, it can seem like mental gymnastics. But some of the hardest thinking the brain does, like translating electrical signals from the eye into images, occurs below the level of awareness and is seemingly effortless. “We don’t try to see, we just open our eyes,” he says.
To explore the frontier between hard and easy thinking, Flombaum has put scores of Hopkins undergrads in front of computers in Ames Hall and tracked their eye movements as they follow circles swarming across their screens.
Depending on the speed and number of circles they are asked to track, the students can find it ridiculously simple or nearly impossible to ace the exercise. “If I ask you to track more than three to five objects, even if they’re moving very slowly, you inevitably make errors,” Flombaum says.
The big difference between people who find tracking the circles in a given test easy and others who find it difficult, Flombaum says, lies in the eye tracking strategy they unconsciously adopt. Test subjects may feel as though they are controlling where they fix their gaze, he says, but tests have shown “we’re not aware of how much we move our eyes, let alone where we’re moving them.”
After the human trials, members of Flombaum’s lab wrote computer programs simulating each test subject’s strategy by mimicking his or her unique pattern of eye movements. These movements are crucial to tracking, because the human eye has far more visual receptors at the center than the periphery. Flombaum says the program demonstrated that the difference between good trackers and bad ones boiled down to one thing: “All the magic is on the part of the eye movements.”
Flombaum’s short-term goal, he says, is to teach people to use the most efficient eye tracking strategy, which would have obvious benefits for training drivers, air traffic controllers, and pilots. His long- term goal, he says, is to use similar simple experiments to help answer some of the toughest outstanding questions in his field, including why consciousness exists at all.