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Back in high school, I made a stained glass mosaic for a Junior Classical League competition. It is a three foot by three foot copy of an angel design I liked from the ceiling of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, and it took my entire junior year to duplicate in quarter-inch-square hand-cut glass tile. The reaction of everyone in my life at that time, including the high school art teacher, was total bemusement, so I taught myself to cut glass, figured out how to lay out the mosaic on a plexiglass sheet over the cartoon, experimented till I found the right sort of glue, and went through the agony of teaching myself to grout (and it was agony, because it could have blown a year's work if I'd messed it up). It came in fifth in the state, which I was and am very proud of, especially as the winner had duplicated a piece from Pompeii that used one-eighth-inch marble triangles to produce photorealistic flowers. I don't even know how a person manages to get marble-cutting equipment as a high school student.

Nowadays when I look at my angel I can mostly see the things wrong with it, but it came out very well considering I had no idea what I was doing.

This book would have been quite helpful in figuring out what I was doing, as it turns out I did most of it incorrectly. The book has two goals: it is an instruction manual, with suggested projects, on mosaic; and it is a brief history of art emphasizing mosaic and discussing possible directions to take mosaic based on the art movements of the twentieth century. As an instruction manual, it's not that bad, though it does suffer a bit from the issue that some experts have in explaining things, where they don't know how much they have to simplify something and so wind up not actually starting at first principles. Also, there are some diagrams which show tools that the book doesn't discuss, and some tools the book does discuss don't turn up in the diagrams. But mostly this is pretty solid, and makes me feel as though I have a real grasp of how one ought to grout (not how I did it). It also gave me an idea of an entire method of mosaic creation I hadn't even known existed, namely the reverse method, where you glue the tiles fronts-down to a piece of paper and then put their backing on top of them; this gives you a lot more leeway to correct your mistakes.

As an art history, it's sadly and necessarily condensed, but really interesting. Mosaic was very popular from antiquity through the Renaissance, fell out of fashion sometime during the Enlightenment, and came back sporadically via the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Deco, and other arts movements that have valued handwork and things which cannot be easily mass-produced. Gaudi turns out to have been the first person to do architectural three-dimensional mosaic decoration, which I had not known. There's some fascinating theoretical work here on the ways that abstraction and color theory of various sorts can play into mosaic design and the ways in which mosaic is and is not painting and can and cannot do the same things; I would love to see more fine-art mosaic along these principles. There is, for example, no reason not to apply the ideas of the Futurists to mosaic-- it's just that they mostly didn't. The book also name-checks several famous and important mosaic artists, most of which I had never heard of. I was particularly struck by the work of Niki de Saint Phalle-- I'm not sure I like it, but it is very much a totally different thing to be doing with mosaic. And the book points out that the most innovative thing ongoing in mosaic is not physical at all, and can't be: the photomosaics producible only by software, which have finally unified technology with one of the few arts that obstinately resists mass-production. I don't know what, if anything, that means, but it's interesting.

I would have preferred this to be split into two different books, honestly, the manual and the history, with more time and space and detail given to each. But this book is not a bad start at all. Makes me want to do more glasswork, as I have been threatening to do for years now.


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March 2017

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