Tag Archives: art history

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.


“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon – the most valuable book in the world!

Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!

I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.

I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.

Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.

What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.

Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Full disclosure: I read about a quarter of this book. If you read my last post (also dated November 11) about “trigger warnings”, this will make sense.

What about “triggers” embedded in fiction? One criterion of good fiction is that we react to it “as if” if was real. I had trouble with this currently popular book. The second chapter recounts a bombing in a museum, followed by pages of agonizing description as the young protagonist awakens in a daze, watches a stranger die horribly, and wanders alone through the unstable building, terrified that he will find his mother among the dead.

I kept waiting for the next paragraph to say “And then I passed out and woke up in a hospital” or “Then a fireman led me to an ambulance” but the nightmare just went on and on. I started skipping from paragraph to paragraph, looking for relief. When my stomach started to hurt, I stopped reading. I was “triggered” by this description of waiting for help that did not come. Did Ms. Tartt owe me a warning? No… Maybe I should have read the Amazon reviews more carefully. Did she intend or expect me to close the book and walk away?

What next? I skipped a chapter and tried again. I still couldn’t deal with the book. Jumping to near the end, I read a chapter that gave a very, very detailed account of a suicide attempt. This author does not let the reader “off the hook” about anything. Her point seems to be that life is suffering. I may, in the future, decide to read The Goldfinch in full. Would Ms. Tartt be surprised to find herself in the company of Stephen King? I won’t read some of his books either.

I could add a list of fiction that caused me too much anxiety to read. Probably half a dozen books over many years. If you feel like sharing about a book that pushed your buttons, please leave a comment below.

Vermeer in Philadelphia

I spent a recent Saturday afternoon enjoying Philadelphia with my son. We walked from Center City along the Schuylkill River to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Museum manages to be more than “just” a museum. It has character. It floats majestically over the City, a modern Parthenon. The iconic Museum steps are an amazing public space. Of course, some people can’t resist running up them, a la Rocky. But many more stroll, sit, visit, consult maps, converge and disperse. 

We hadn’t any plan. It was too close to closing time to venture into the big featured exhibit, “Treasures from Korea”. We visited a few favorite galleries, then I realized that a Vermeer was on display. Having read I was Vermeer: the Forger Who Swindled the Nazis (by Frank Wynne) a few years ago, I was thrilled. We found our way to the painting, hanging on a wall like any other canvas. (I expected it to be more “featured”.) It’s a tiny work entitled “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal”. The virginal is a keyboard instrument. The woman is playing, but she looks straight at the artist, very composed. The light and color are lovely. It is said to be the only Vermeer privately held. The owner is identified as the Leiden Collection.

There aren’t many Vermeer paintings in existence, and their number is uncertain, because of attribution issues and forgery. Wynne’s book recounted the exploits of Han van Meegeren, an artist and art dealer who took up forgery because he felt his work was not appreciated. He was an accomplished artist and premiere forger. I recommend Wynne’s book highly. 

I guess this means I’m a fan of the Dutch Golden Age. The Philadelphia Museum owns 300 paintings in that category – enough to keep me entertained for many for visits!