Archive for May, 2012

Discontinued Product Memory Lane: The Disappearing Descartes Mug

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

One of our earliest heat-changing mugs was the Disappearing Descartes mug.

It started with one of our favorite jokes: “Renee Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am.’ When asked if he wanted a cup of coffee, he replied ‘I think not.’  He then promptly disappeared.”

Our disappearing Descartes mug featured an image of Descartes along with the statement “I think, therefore I am” on one side of the mug, and again in the original Latin (“Cogito ergo sum”) on the other side.  When hot liquid was added to the mug, Descartes would disappear, and the text would change to “I think not” (or “non cogito” in Latin).

A must for all philosophers, we stopped selling this mug once every philosopher in the world bought one (there aren’t that many of them out there).

Famous Art Theft Month – The Scream

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Why does everyone want to steal The Scream?

For some reason or another, Edvard Munch’s The Scream is one of the most stolen artworks in history.  Several versions of it has been stolen, some more than once.

In 1994, four men stole The Scream from the National Gallery in Norway. They left a sign behind that read “thanks for the poor security.”

Security Cameras captured the 1994 theft.

In 2004, thieves stole a copy of The Scream from the Munch museum in Oslo.  During the day.  In broad daylight.  Someone even had a chance to snap some photos of the thieves as they loaded their car.  Really, Norway has got to be a pretty easy place to commit a crime.

The 2004 theft in Oslo.

Luckily, the painting has always been recovered.

Thanks to UPG you can own your own Scream without resorting to crime.  And at our prices, you’ll have to admit that they’re a steal!

UPG Guestpert: Jay Ruttenberg of the Lowbrow Reader

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Every month we interview a guest expert, or “guestpert” on our blog.

This month, we feature Jay Ruttenberg, author and editor of The Lowbrow Reader, a zine which is coming out in book form this month.  We sat down with Jay to talk about his work and lowbrow culture in general.

UPG: How did the Lowbrow Reader come about?

JR: I started working on the Lowbrow Reader in the fall of 2000, just after I moved to New York. Originally, I was hoping to make it an iPhone app, or perhaps an interactive publication tailored for an iPad with a strong Twitter presence. Alas, the technology wasn’t quite there yet, so we settled on an old-fashioned zine. In part, I wanted to start the publication because of the negative reviews that had greeted my favorite movie, Billy Madison; in part, I simply wanted to work on a project with the Lowbrow Reader’s designer, Matt Berube.

cover drawing by John Mathias

UPG: How would you define “lowbrow”?

JR: In comedy, I would say that Harpo Marx is lowbrow while Groucho Marx is highbrow. Of course, back in the day, the upper-crust favored Harpo: His fans included Wolcott Gibbs, Dorothy Parker, and Salvador Dalí, a celebrated designer of dorm-room posters. So maybe Chico is the true lowbrow icon? He is definitely the Marx Brother I would least like to meet in a dark alley late at night.

drawing by David Berman

UPG: Do you honestly feel that the lowbrow elements of our culture are being underrepresented?

JR: I worry most about the underrepresentation of middlebrow culture, and hope to remedy this by launching a second publication that will focus on it exclusively. I intend to call it “O, The Oprah Magazine.”

UPG: Who are your greatest lowbrow icons?

JR: Harpo Marx, Larry David, Joan Rivers, my mother, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, and Howard Stern.

UPG: As a writer, what drove you to take on the role of editor for a project like this?

JR: I have always enjoyed editing as well as writing. More significantly, one of the most rewarding aspects of working on the Lowbrow Reader is tapping the talents of others—whether writers, illustrators, comedians, or even the musicians who have performed at our events. It sounds corny and pretentious, but I’ve always viewed the Lowbrow Reader as a “collective,” or something along those lines.

UPG: From a zine to a book – what’s next for Lowbrow?

drawing by John Mathias

JR: First, let me take this opportunity to give an unsolicited, morning zoo–style plug to some upcoming Lowbrow Reader events. On Tuesday, May 29, New Yorkers of all stripes are invited to come to the lovely Housing Works Bookstore in Soho for The Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour featuring two of my favorite musical acts in the world: Adam Green and Supercute!, plus two of my favorite standup comedians, Wyatt Cenac and Professor Irwin Corey. There will be a similar event in Chicago later in the summer—stay alert, Chicagoans!

I am not sure what the future has in store for the Lowbrow Reader. I certainly don’t want it to just exist as a website, which seems so petit bourgeoisie. It is my hope to do more books, maybe some 7” singles, and perhaps an art show in a Chelsea gallery that smells like paint. I will also say that The Lowbrow Reader Reader is by far the best thing we have produced to date. If you read it and do not laugh out loud, you are probably a racist.

The Lowbrow Reader Reader is available for sale starting on May 22nd.

Famous Art Theft Month – The Gardner Museum Heist

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The most expensive currently-missing painting is Vermeer’s The Concert.

It was stolen in a daring heist from the Gardner Museum in Boston, in which the thieves posed as policemen.  The Concert was taken along with the only marine painting made by Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and several other pieces of art including ones by Manet and Degas.

Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

The Vermeer alone is priced at $300 million.  Do you know where it is?  There’s a $5,000,000 reward in it for you if you do. (Not from us, but from the Gardner Museum. Please do not call or write us.)

Titian’s "Europa"

Oddly, the thieves didn’t bother to steal the most valuable painting in the collection, Titian’s Europa.  There’s no accounting for taste.

Famous Art Theft Month – The Amber Room

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

It’s famous art theft month on the PhLog.  Today we’re posting about everyone’s favorite evil villains: The Nazis.

The Nazis were responsible for the greatest quantity of art theft of the 20th century.  Hitler planned a great museum to house what he considered to be Europe’s masterworks.  (Nazis destroyed some masterworks they didn’t consider to be worthy of the title, but that’s another story.)  Paintings and sculpture were appropriated from Jews and museums wherever the Nazis went.  Vermeer’s The Astronomer became one of Hitler’s prize possessions when he stole it from France.  A black Swastika was stamped onto the back of the painting and it remains there today.

To this date Nazi-stolen artwork is still making its way back to its former owners.  In 1995, Edgar Degas’ masterpiece Place de la Concorde, long believed lost, was discovered in St. Petersburg.  (Turns out the Soviets also stole art; in this case, they stole stolen German art).  And after years of litigation Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was only recently returned to its proper owner.

Nazi art-thieving also left a legacy of lost masterpieces, including Van Gogh’s Painter on the Road to Tarascon and the fabled Amber Room (that’s right, a ROOM made of AMBER at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg).  The Amber Room was made by skilled Prussian artisans in 1716 for Peter the Great and was packed up into crates and removed by the Nazis.  This Russian national treasure, and one of the most unique artworks in Europe, remains missing to this day.

Thanks Nazis!

Projects we Like: Annie Levy’s Latvia Project

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Annie Levy is a theater director based in New York City.  Her latest piece, The Latvia Project, explores issues of mythology and personal identity.  We sat down with Annie to discuss her work.

UPG: You’re a theater director very much interested in myth and storytelling.  What is it that draws you to these classic stories?

AL: I want to tell stories that explore the universal, that somehow succeed at achieving some sense of universality. Mythology has always gotten closest to that ideal.

UPG: Tell us how this project came about.

AL: When I was an undergrad, I came across some footnote in a index of motifs in folklore and mythology that mentioned that Saule was the Latvian Sun GODDESS and Meness was the Latvian Moon GOD — lovers with some sort of extremely tumultuous relationship.  This struck me.  Hard.  On the head.  But I wasn’t sure why.  One way to look at this version of the piece is that it attempts to answer why.

UPG: What is it specifically about the Latvian mythology that had such an effect on you?

AL: The idea that the Woman could be the Sun.

Subconsciously, I had always associated the Sun with MALE and the Moon with FEMALE (because that’s what it is in Greco-Roman mythological traditions).  And that’s a really problematic dichotomy, for all the reason that anyone who studies gender theory, or feminist theory, or has ever felt estranged from their per-subscribed gender identity can tell you.  I felt I had been fighting my whole life to be Moon when I really was Sun.  Other people have used other symbols to describe this same tension, but the Sun/Moon idea worked for me.

UPG: Was that the genesis of your connection to Latvia specifically?

AL: The next part of the story is that when I was 25, I found out from a letter that my paternal Grandfather had written before he died, that his grandfather (my great, great grandfather) had brought the family to Riga, Latvia in the 1850s and that the family had lived there for 40 years before emigrating to America.  When I asked, I found out that my maternal great great grandfather was also born in Riga and immigrated to America around the same time.  And all of a sudden, I felt like I could stake some sort of claim on this mythology.  That it could be, in part, mine.  That I could call myself Latvian, if I wanted to.   But that desire turned out to be pretty complicated, for reasons that the piece explores.

UPG: In developing this piece, was there a moment where you left your own story behind and created your own new myth of identity?

AL: Yes, but not as much as I thought I would. Right now the piece explores my own inability to truly tell my own story and that being one of the reasons why I look to mythology to fill in the void. Is identity something you just make up? Or is some of it beyond your control? These are two questions that the piece continues to wrestle with.

UPG: How do you see myth as a vessel to exploring issues of identity?

AL: The answer to that has to do with mythology and truth. Myths are automatically thought to be false.  Myths are stories.  Facts are facts. But the more you think about it you start to see you own identity more as story than fact.  Myths stay the same but as we change, our understanding of them changes.  We measure our growth (our changing identity) against them.  Like the wall where our parents use to mark off how tall we’ve gotten.

UPG: What’s next for this project?  Are you interested in going to the real Latvia and sharing this story with real Latvians or is the real place in a way not the same as the imaginary space of your project?

AL: I really do want to visit Latvia because I am so curious about how the mythology I’ve created about the place will compare to the real thing. I know the piece will not be “done” until I visit. I think in many ways I am wrestling with how to tell a story that doesn’t have an ending and cannot have an ending anytime soon.

Annie Levy’s Latvia Project can be seen at Dixon Place in New York City on Thursday, May 18th.  And there are apparently puppets involved. More information and tickets are available here.

Famous Art Theft Month – Portrait of the Duke of Wellington

Friday, May 11th, 2012

In honor of the sale of The Scream at auction this month, we’re featuring posts about famous art thefts.

It’s unclear what drives people to steal famous works of art.  Every once in a while the thief demands a ransom for the return of the artwork (a crime known as “artnapping”).  But you can hardly sell stolen major pieces of art on the market, even though there is a weak statute of limitations on some art theft, and apparently it’s easier to unload stolen art in Japan due to their relatively lax laws on this kind of thing. We hear.

The oddest reason for art theft that we’ve come across is the reason retired British bus driver Kempton Bunton stole Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington in 1961.

Goya’s painting had just been bought by a wealthy American, but the British government matched his purchase of £140,000 ($390,000) in order to keep this masterpiece on British soil.

Bunton, a retired civil servant struggling to survive on a meager salary in postwar Britain, was enraged at this government expenditure in a time when so many Britons were just scraping by and decided to steal the Goya and ransom it.  His plan for what to do with the ransom?  Pay for television licenses for the poor. (Yes, in the UK you have to pay the government for a license to watch television.)  The plan failed however, and Bunton returned the painting four years later and turned himself in.  And poor people in Britain have to pay the government TV license to this day.

Famous Art Theft Month – The Mona Lisa

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

In honor of the sale of Munch’s The Scream this last week (a painting that’s been stolen numerous times), we’re posting about famous art thefts throughout the month.

Today’s post is about a painting that became one of the world’s most famous paintings because it was stolen.

On August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant and Louvre employee, angry that the Louvre was exhibiting an Italian masterwork stolen and brought to France by Napoleon, stuck The Mona Lisa under his coat and walked out the museum.

In fact, unlike much of the Italian art at the Louvre, The Mona Lisa was not stolen by Napoleon, but apparently Peruggia wasn’t into research.

The French police launched an extensive investigation, but they weren’t very good at it.  Blameless luminaries as Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire were arrested.  Peruggia was interrogated by the police at his apartment but was dismissed as a suspect.  If the police had bothered to search his apartment they would have found the painting.

Over the following two years, art lovers gathered by the thousands to see the spot on the wall where the painting used to hang, making it the most popular un-painting in the world.

The Missing Mona Lisa

The theft was solved and the painting recovered when Peruggia showed up in Florence, where he offered The Mona Lisa to Uffizi Museum (or tried to sell it depending on which version of the story you hear).  Expecting a hero’s welcome, Peruggia was instead arrested.  The painting was exhibited in Italy to sold-out crowds and then returned to the Louvre where it hangs to this day.

Monday Morning Music

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Something to brighten your Monday morning. Plus a way to pick up some Latin.

Famous Art Theft Month – The Last Judgment

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012


A copy of Munch’s painting The Scream just broke the record for a painting sold at an auction, bringing in a whopping $119.9 million dollars.  The Scream has been stolen three times so we thought that this could be a good time to explore the world of art thefts.  This month we’ll be sharing stories about famous art thefts throughout history.

Yes, we know that one could argue that most of the artifacts shown in museums were stolen from someone, but we’re not going to get into that.  Looting has been going on ever since people had things to loot.

The first case of art theft on record was The Last Judgment, a three-panel altarpiece by Flemish painter Hans Memling.  The painting was en route from Flanders to Florence when Polish pirates attacked the ship.  A “pious pirate” donated the art to a church in Gdansk where it remains to this day.