CU on most expensive camera

This is not your average pack of John Player Specials. It is a close-up on a photo camera, produced in Kiev, Ukraine (then a republic of the USSR), for the KGB. Despite the KGB had never used this spying tool, it became one of the most sought after collection prizes.

If you happen to find one in the attic, don’t smoke it. It can buy you a new house.


Stay tuned for more bizarre photography stuff! )

Don’t shoot the photographer!

Telescopic lens, auto-focus, continuous shooting at 30 frames per second, and  – bang! – emotions of the striker who scored a goal can be felt in the minuscule detail of the macro take of sweat beads on his forehead. Close-up shots go as smooth and easy as vodka ones, but without the headache. It has not always been like this, folks.

A close-up shot from a long range once required an assistant, preferably under-sized, and hardy both physically and mentally: he had to be prepared for a barrage of abuse if he so much as twitched his shoulder. It’s not ancient history, it is 1948.

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Imagine reaction of the police if they see it, say, pointed at a government official today. There are photographers who love using historic equipment, but someone with this device is likely to have life-expectancy of a moth, possibly shorter.

This photo comes from the Vevey Photography museum in Switzerland. More to follow.

Part II. Do cats rule this planet?

In Part I we paused at the end of the 18th century, when cats realised their collective bet on superstition, witchcraft and other supernatural powers had been pathetically lost. Instead of respect cats were getting as much bad publicity as BP in 2010, except that they didn’t have BP’s cosmically expensive PR gurus to save the day.

The ingenuous canine strategy of simpleton’s loyalty, manifested through yelping, barking, chasing cats, licking an owner’s hand and shagging an owner’s leg was a triumph. It was making the cats’ loss all the more humiliating.

In today’s marketing terms, cats needed to reposition their brand, that is, to suggest a benefit for the human consumer that would be meaningful and different to the dogs’ proposition.

Cats still found it difficult to think of themselves as weaker animals than dogs, so the first idea was to call the Big Brother, the Lion, for support. Cats charmed Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix into representing Cat Power. Both started using cats as models for their lions and tigers. They had such an interest in feline anatomy that one may misattribute their sketches to Leonardo, who, as we know from Part I, thinking in much the same way, had cats hooked up to dragons.


Eugène Delacroix:

Eugène Delacroix: Lion hunt, 1955

Alas, as cats were soon to discover, lions would not offer a 24/7 help line, and Man never respected anyone who could be kicked and couldn’t kick back, or hire a lawyer.

It took cats some 30 years to come up with a better idea. A new urban class was reinventing itself in Paris, the artistic centre of the First and Second Industrial revolutions. The ancient rituals of marrying off  French princesses to Austrian princes were dying out, taking with them the more common bans on sex before marriage and out-of-class unions. In fact, the rise of capitalists and the impoverishment of “landed aristocracy” made those unions quite desirable for all the concerned parties. A minor problem of insufficient beauty on the aristocratic side, eroded by centuries of cross-breeding, had been quickly resolved by the rise of clandestine prostitution. It was the dawn of the modern relationship.

Cats put their efforts behind the New Relationship idea. They first approached Edouard Manet, who was contemplating the same subject matter while working on his Olympia (1863).
Olympia small

Here, the black cat represents everything that made Olympia a prize whore of Paris. Still, the cat is rather an accessory here. It requires a human figure to send a message.

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A little more effort, and Manet came up with a drawing that had only cats.


It doesn’t really matter that tail anatomy leaves much to be desired or wondered about in this drawing (by the way, are you surprised Manet would draw something like that? Because I was)

What’s important is that cats stopped being flat-character animals here. Now they had three-dimensional personalities, fit for telling stories. Dogs, by the way, could never reach this height of anthropomorphism. They have never gone beyond a rather silly similarity between them and some of their owners.

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Nelly O'Brien, c.1762

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Nelly O’Brien, c.1762

By the way, Nelly was also a high-class courtesan, which makes one wonder if her Maltese dog was just as indiscriminate. You see, it’s not the dog that creates character, it’s the portrayed woman.

The next artist who reinforced feline supremacy was Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, a Swiss painter whose work is often and unjustly misattributed to Toulouse Lautrec.


Theophile Steinlen, The Black Cat, 1896

The black cat is especially intimidating. It rules the nightlife of Paris which at the time was the golden standard of wasting away health and money. In other words, it stood for quality lifestyle. Cats became the kings of glamour, which even then was already taking the shape of a religion that it is today.

About the same time, Aubrey Beardlsey, from across the channel, made a prophetic statement about the role of cats:

Aubrey Beardsley Pierrot and Cat, 1893

Aubrey Beardsley Pierrot and Cat, 1893

Cat was getting bigger than Man, softly guiding human emotions towards their sinister ends.

Picasso issued two cat warnings in 1939, exposing a cat for what it was, a merciless carnivorous hunter:

cat-catching-a-bird-1939 cat-eating-a-bird-1939.jpg!Large

But it was too cubist and too late. Men had already been plucked, the moment Franz Marc, a German expressionist, replaced cat fur with pure emotion back in 1912:

Franz Marc, Two Cats, 1912

Franz Marc, Two Cats, 1912

In a few more decades the internet was invented.

Now, according to conservative estimates, cats are responsible for 50% of our emotions: they satisfy the basic human needs of closeness, harmony, and love, along with the minor ones of having something cute to share online, and something fluffy to play with.

I also have a painted cat now. It was a gift from the artist, Vladimir Sevostianov. It shows a cat, but in fact represents a mafia don from a tiny Russian village. It can scare the only dog (a German shepherd) that lives there into stepping aside from its bowl of food.

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There is a theory which states that cats subtly nudge our civilisation to an enslaved state when two humans won’t be able to establish a relationship unless a cat representative allows, and mediates it. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

PS I am sorry to be late with answering comments: I am on vacation, currently roaming the Gallery of Modern Art in Milan. Thank god it seems to be losing in its competition with fashion boutiques: there are no tourists, and plenty of space.

Mediaeval adultery: quiz answer

Here, I bombarded readers with disturbing mediaeval book illustrations, of which the last one was a quiz.

The queen is being caressed by a dragon while the king watches the scene from behind the door. What is going on there?

This is the Conception of Alexander the Great, from the Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus, produced in Bruges ca. 1468-1475.

It represents, perhaps, one of the most complicated cover-up stories for adultery in history.

According to the ancient myth, Alexander was the product of a liaison between his mother, Olympias, and Ammon, a relatively obscure Asian god.

Under normal circumstances, Ammon appeared as a handsome man with bull horns.


He turned into a serpent to seduce Olympias.

My first reaction was like, “A serpent?! Wait a minute. What was wrong with the horny man avatar?”

I can only assume Ammon always changed appearances, when aroused (like most men) or realised his horns were making Olympias’ favourite love-making positions awkward or even dangerous. Recently, a theory was proposed that the horns might disagree with Olympias’ habit of wearing crown in bed. The academic community, citing the case of Edward VIII, dismissed the suggestion as a liberal fantasy: a crown is known to have been tossed aside at passionate moments by queens and kings alike.

Alexander’s father, Philip, couldn’t interfere in this affair because Christianity, the only religion that allowed humans to crucify God now and pay later, had not been invented yet. Greek gods didn’t grace their people with eternal love and afterlife.  Their relationship was mainly about vanity, envy, and inventive ways of immediate retribution. It went both ways, with the Ancient Greeks often beating their gods at this game.

This also explains why the Modern Greeks don’t have much respect for the German God of Euro, the French God of Austerity, or the Brussels God of Proper Administration. They believe they can show them all the middle finger, and keep the finger, reenacting the famous moment when English archers mocked their French enemies with the V sign. The archers were advertising their ability to aim and shoot arrows despite the French earlier promise to cut off their fingers. The only difference between then and now is that the archers, unlike the Modern Greeks, did have their long-bows and arrows to back up the threat.

Back to Philip now. He had to watch in awe how a Loch Ness monster was having sex with his wife who was having great time with Ammon, who must have immensely enjoyed himself both physically and spiritually, foreseeing that his son would pepper all the lands he would conquer with shrines to Ammon his father.

Is the now forgotten trick of informing your son he was fathered by a god the right career start for a power maniac? Discuss.

Even the Ancient Greeks, famous for their ability to spin tales found it difficult to believe this fantasy.

They said, nay, it couldn’t be Ammon. I totally agree: gods that sound like “Come on” uttered by someone with a digested nose can’t be historically important.

It must have been Nectanebo, they said, formerly a sorcerer, a skilled astrologist, and the ruler of Egypt, who arrived to Macedonia as a political refugee a few years before Alexander was born.

First, he foretold Olympias would have a son conceived by the god Ammon who would appear as a serpent, then he changed into a serpent, and had unprotected sex with her.

You know, that’s plausible. It’s what the Americans want Assange for: he did something similar to a Swedish girl. She testified she had been convinced she was having sex with the god of the freedom of expression, that is until she boasted of the escapade to a friend.

Years later Nectanebo’s secret was revealed, and Olympias had to admit she had been tricked into having extramatiral sex with a dragon, or a serpent, or even a large eagle. She couldn’t point out the exact species, but recalled that the size was impressive. I wonder if she smiled inwardly at remembering the experience.

A thought-provoking story, isn’t it? Alas, it is almost forgotten. Alexander’s hollywood biopic does not feature this episode (a PG rating would hurt revenues), serious history books bypass its absurdity, and even telling the story to students is rarely possible. They are underage when they study this period at school, and are likely to file a harassment suit against their professor at uni.

Just imagine what could transpire if Tolkien preferred the subtlety of Southern myths to the brutality of their Northern varieties! We could end up with a much more adventurous story of Bilbo Baggins.

But now you know it, and thanks to a mediaeval publisher, you’ve just witnessed its climax.

Mediaeval symbolism can make you scream with terror

There’s one challenge that missing in my previous symbolism post.  With the invention of photography, a lot of good old symbolism has been lost, dissipated in the currents of time…

So, can you, a modern observer, guess what is going on in this wonderfully crafted illustration from a mediaeval manuscript?

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What’s your first impression?

When I saw it for the first time, I loved the guy behind the wall who seems to be saying, “Oh, all right, I’ll come later then”. 


  1. It is very likely you know the story!
  2. These are stones in the apron of the lady.

And check out the Rabit Rabbits and Merry Nuns, if you missed it.

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Rabid rabbits and merry nuns

Mediaeval cats from Part I on feline domination created quite a stir. While I am labouring away at cat history of the 19th century, here’s more of symbolic medieval imagery. It is always bizarre, often funny, sometimes psychedelic, and, at times, mildly disturbing. And each one is a challenge on symbolism.

The Dark Middle Ages were not as somber as the name implies. Monks, sublimating their celibacy by prayer, brewing beer, and copying books would occasionally allow themselves a bit of fun in the margins. It appears they were using a lot of visual codes that no one can decipher now. Their symbolism has been forever lost with the invention of the printing press.

Are you ready for a bit of guesswork, and a lot of leaps of faith?

First comes a cat playing bagpipes from a 15th c French manuscript.

What is the symbolic meaning of this cat?

My take is that it must be a cat from the hallucinogenic meadows of Scotland. Perhaps, the French have always been friends with the Scots (and enemies of the English) because they believed the Scots might let them walk freely on those meadows one day. The flora here seems to be very different to the classical concept of the English Lawn. Any other ideas?

bagpipes cat  book of hours, Paris ca. 1460. NY, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.282, fol. 133v

Book of Hours, Paris ca. 1460

Next comes, or rather flies in, a penis monster with a Mona Lisa smile on its face. Apparently it takes its passenger non-stop to Sinful Pleasure, and Eternal Damnation. What it means, I suppose, is that all women think of is sex, and because of this they are a constant threat to men (at least, in the eyes of the celibate scribe in 1340).

flying penis monster  Decretum Gratiani with the commentary of Bartolomeo da Brescia, Italy 1340-1345. Lyon, BM, Ms 5128, fol. 100r

Decretum Gratiani with the commentary of Bartolomeo a Brescia, Italy 1340-1345.

This particular visual symbol has survived the Renaissance, Reformation, Industrialisation, and postmodernism to become a standard feature of an urban public toilet, commonly known as “flying penis graffiti”.  Alas, its original moral message has been lost along the way.

If a flying willy is something we are all accustomed to, a cultivated pecker would be more readily associated with, say, a polite son of a bitch often encountered among corporate executives and lawyers than with a penis fruit tree.

nuns and the penis tree Roman de la Rose, France 14th century. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, fols. 106v, 160r

Roman de la Rose, France 14th century.

What is the symbolic meaning of nuns harvesting penises from trees?

While this concept may seem silly and bawdy to a modern observer, it was quite popular in the Dark Middle Ages. It could be found on lead pilgrimage badges, wood carvings, and even frescoes, like the one discovered in Tuscany fifteen years ago:


If you can’t see the faded fruit on this mural, click on it to get a bigger size

At a recent conference on mediaeval manuscripts, a UK librarian came up with an unorthodox idea. According to him, the nuns represent an antithesis to the widespread secular attitude of indifference, which in most European languages is commonly reduced to “I don’t give a f***”. Effectively, the nuns say, “We give a lot of what you don’t”, or, simply, “We care!”

Rumour has it the librarian was sued by Office Depot for slogan copyright infringement, and later abandoned the idea in favour of the straightforward traditional view.  Depending on circumstance, the image could mean fertility, [re]generation, or men’s obsession with their potency, which feminist historians have established as the cause of the rise of chivalry, the popularity of jousts, and the beginning of most military campaigns, in general.

That’s not true, of course. Most boys, when they are innocent kids, love sword fighting and arrow shooting because, simply, it is tremendous fun. The problem is that some youths start entertaining the idea they can get even more fun with lethal weapons, once they don’t have to face their parents about torn clothes, broken limbs, and new holes in their bodies.

A lot of symbolism related to fighting and waging wars can be found in mediaeval books. Yet, some of it is not easy and sometimes impossible to understand.

In books, knights often fight snails. No one knows why. The prevalent hypothesis is that the snail stands for human vices, and feminine dissoluteness. I am sorry, but it seems to be about the bad influence of women’s thinking about sex all the time, again!

Snail vs. Knight, from The Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c. 1300. Illuminations were added about forty years later in London.

Smithsfield Decretals, decretals of Gregory IX, Tolouse, c.1300. Illuminations were added ca.40 years later in London.

If you are in time management, think of using this illumination for your presentations: you can claim that the pioneers of your profession were noble knights in shining armor (tip: buy appropriate cufflinks, and a ring).

There is another recurring war-related image that fills out the margins of many mediaeval books. It is so… mediaevil that even hardcore mediaevalists don’t know what it really means. It is about bunnies maiming and killing men with amazing ingenuity and determination.

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

A giant rabid rabbit is a creature both to behold and run away from, isn’t it?

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, detail of f. 61v. The Decretals of Gregory IX [the Smithfield Decretals], edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort); with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. c.1300-1340

So, what this image is trying to tell us? Is it about dangers lurking behind amiable appearances of apparently harmless stuff? Is it a hint a fluffy bunny may become a murderous werehare? It could be a nice educational material to teach kids that the real world can be surprisingly cruel. The side-effect, of course, is that the number of dedicated hare killers and general-purpose psychos is expected to grow.

Now that you’ve been harassed enough by the mediaevil stuff, I’ll set off to finish Part II of my feline art history. In the meantime, you may want to entertain yourself by trying to guess the meaning of this highly symbolic image:

hey dragon. you’re not supposed to be here. Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d'Alexandre (translation of Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus), Bruges ca. 1468-1475. British Library, Burney 169, fol. 14r

We are quite used to dragons being slain by saintly knights, but it doesn’t look like “a lady-in-distress” kind of story. Do you feel pity for the king? Or do you sympathise with the queen?

What the heck is going on here?

A page of verses from 'The Witches' Frolic' by English cleric and humorous writer Richard Harris Barham (1788-1845), a.k.a. Thomas Ingoldsby, published 1888. The illustration shows the three witches from the story, two ugly, one beautiful. Below is a depiction of the devil playing the bagpipes. Wood engraving by Edward Gascoine after Ernest M. Jessop. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Part I: Do cats rule this planet?

Few people can resist the temptation to take a picture of a cute kitty or puppy, share or “like” one, and even fewer people would admit they have this frailty. Many complain other people clutter their Facebook page with cats, and then furtively re-post the syrupy images. Even if you are not afflicted personally by the plague, I am sure you have a friend who suffers from the CFHD (Canine-Feline Hypocrisy Disorder) in acute or chronic form.

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