There are few things I love more than museums.

First are art museums, of course.  I’ve loved these magnificent repositories of our cultural heritage ever since the day my first grade class viewed the mummies and paintings and gaudy ormolu clocks at the Cleveland Museum of Arts, and whenever I visit a new city I try to make time to see the local temple of the arts.  The Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library in New York…the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston…the Carnegie in Pittsburgh…the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford…the fine little art museum at my beloved alma mater…the Victoria & Albert in London and the Kunsthistoriches in Vienna…I’ve seen them all, and if a pigeon crapping on my head in Vienna led to me washing my hair in a public bathroom in front of the Hofburg, well, it didn’t keep from enjoying the glory of Benvenuto Cellini’s salt cellar.  

And it’s not just art museums.  Not only have I visited historic houses that have sheltered everyone from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Thomas Jefferson, I docent at the home of the Skinner family, owners of the greatest silk company America has ever seen.  I’ve gazed in wonder at folk art in the Smithsonian, examined a tiny patchwork pillow at a town museum in Tuscany, kept my hands behind my back counting the stitches in patchwork quilts at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, watched artisans make tin lanterns at Old Sturbridge Village and Greenfield Village…cripes, I’ve even written about museums and collecting in my most recent paper on early quilts.

I think the technical term for people like me is “museum junkie,” and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  Museums may be expensive, and some are so specialized as to verge on the ludicrous (did you know there’s a Shuffleboard Hall of Fame?  Or an institution devoted to that necessary but neglected artifact of civilization called the soup tureen?  Or a Hall of Moss out in the Pacific Northwest?  Well, you do now!), but what better way to learn about the past than to see the good, the beautiful, and the rare?

That’s not to say that everything in a museum is good, beautiful, or rare.  There’s plenty of mediocre, unlovely, and common in the bowels of the average cultural institution – did you know that the National Gallery has not one but two fake Vermeers in its collection?  Well, why the heck not?  Some of this material is of interest to scholars, like the enormous collection of dead insects in the Smithsonians, but a lot of it was barely of interest to the person who collected and donated it, let alone modern curators or the general public.

Then there are the Museum Exhibits So Bad They’re Good.

I had the rare privilege of seeing some of these last May when I was at the American Museum of Natural History, and let me tell you, it was a revelation.  I had no idea that there were so very, very many dead animals, some shot and stuffed at the behest of Teddy Roosevelt himself, on display for the delight of the crowds, or that so many of them needed a good dusting.  And who knew that society ladies looking to enlighten the public about rare minerals donated whole parures of rare gemstones that had once graced their dainty white necks at Mrs. Astor’s balls?  Or that the curators had stuck them into display cases still in their 18 carat gold settings, giving the unwashed a glimpse not only of the Glories of Nature but of the Wealth of the Lorillards?  

The Museum of Natural History is far from the only great institution to have such items on display.  The Academia in Florence boasts not only Michaelangelo’s David but an extensive collection of pre-Renaissance panel paintings that are stunning in their mediocrity.  The Cloisters owns not only the Merode Altarpiece but a strange little tapestry that has all the Instruments of the Passion laid out on a table, including a lumpy thing that looks like a moldy potato but is actually a sponge.  The Met itself is home to a sculpted Baby Jesus who bears a striking resemblance to Ross Perot, and let’s not even talk about the lamp at the Quadrangle Museum in Springfield that looks like a lump of liquified Velveeta, shall we?

I’ve seen all of these, and chuckled, and rolled my eyes.  But none of them, not even the moldy bison in New York or the cheesy lamp in Massachusetts, made me laugh as hard as the item I once encountered at the Uffizi in Florence.

The Uffizi is not as big as the Met, or even the MFA, but its collection of European paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque is quite possibly the best in the world.  Giotto, Cimabue, Duccio, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Durer, Uccello, both Gentileschis, Pollaiuolo, Botticelli…if you’ve ever cracked a book of Italian history, watched a documentary about the Italian Renaissance, or sent a greeting card of Venus on the half-shell, you’ve seen something from the Uffizi.  It’s the sort of place with so many famous paintings, almost all of them fine enough to make the reputation of any other museum, that one can easily find one’s self thinking, “Ho hum, another Titian” after a couple of hours.

Unfortunately for the adoring public, but fortunately for you, my lucky, lucky readers, not everything in the Uffizi is a masterpiece.  You see, the Uffizi started out as the art collection of the Medici family, and though most of them had a good eye for art, some of them…let’s just say that even Olympus nods, shall we?  

The mediocrities are by and large either not on display or are shoved into back corridors where the public rarely ventures.  However, there is one painting that is not only proudly on display, but impossible to avoid since it's directly opposite the entrance of a critical passageway.  It's a fine example of Mannerism, the High Renaissance style that subordinated clean lines and calm, symmetrical compositions to exaggerated proportions and jittery expressions in an attempt to convey mood rather than thought.  

It is also one of the most unintentionally hilarious paintings I have ever seen.

Seriously, folks - I walked into the gallery where this one is hung, stared for a good ten seconds, and then burst out laughing.  The guard stared at me, several other patrons glared, and I wrapped my arms about my ribs and guffawed.  

I'd try to describe just what it is about this magnificent example of an Old Master So Bad It's Hilarious that makes it so funny, and so bad, but in this case a picture really is worth a thousand words:

The Madonna of the Long Neck, by Parmigianino

Need I say more?

Thinking of this painting, which is occupies a place of honor at one of world's greatest museums and is regularly taught in art survey courses, made me think of other bad art.  There's a lot out there - don't get me started on Modernism or Post-Modernism, now or ever - but as awful as some of the stuff in museums is, even worse are certain images that grace the cover of our written entertainment.

You know what that means:  it's time for another look at Cover Art So Bad It's Good.

Tonight I bring you ten horrible examples of cover art.  In the past I've restricted myself to cover art from books or e-books, but after encountering what you're about to read, I couldn't resist including five Comic Book Covers So Bad You'll Lose Your Lunch/Dinner/Meal of Choice, including a wonderful example of terrible anatomy that would warm the cockles of Parmigianino's dead and embalmed little heart:

Big Gator, by Annora Soule - this is so much to deride love about this; I mean, big girls don't get nearly enough love, so pairing up one with a hot stud with either a carbuncle or a third nipple, SO.  DAMN.  SEXY is a real advance for the romance genre.  And what future pair of shoes girl wouldn't love a pretty flower tucked behind one protuberance ear?  And if werewolves are TEH SEXAY, why not alligators?  I mean, the author of Swamplandia just nabbed a MacArthur genius grant, so why not the author of this hideous piece of e-trash masterpiece of erotica?

Female Force:  Michelle Obama - Female Force is evidently a series of comic books about prominent women, primarily politicians, based on the idea that powerful women deserve their own books.  This laudable goal, alas, is undermined not only by some extremely questionable choices (just what message are we sending our daughters by selecting Sarah Palin, former half-term Governor of fewer people than live in Boston, or Princess Diana, whose love life could be charitably described as "problematic"?) but by atrocious cover art that makes even the likes of Hillary Clinton look somewhat psychotic.  I was hard pressed to choose one, and you'll see why if you click this link....

Jufvrouw Ruffel en Hare Seven Geleerde Poesjes (Miss Ruffel and Her Seven Scholarly Kittens) - this whimsical cover to a 19th century Dutch children's book would be quite charming - until one realizes that these aren't kittens, they're full grown cats.  And precisely what is scholarly about dancing cats, one of which looks ready to belt a slow-dancing couple out of jealousy while two others seem poised to give each other a terrorist fist bump?  Why is Miss Ruffel waving a crutch about?  Why is she wearing carpet slippers outdoors? Is this merely a pretty picture or an illustration of something darker?  Precisely what is going on here, and is it REALLY suitable for children????

David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade - How many cliches about ghetto priests and ghetto dwellers does this contain?  Let me count the ways:

- Overflowing trash can:  check.

- Brick buildings:  check.

- Passive bystanders:  check.

- Wailing girlfriend:  check.

- Bad attempts at hip clothing, hairstyles, and headgear:  check, check, and check.

- Repulsively clean-cut Man of God in a square's version of hip clothing:  check.

- Ridiculous dialogue about being cut to pieces for the Body of Christ, or something:  check.

It's enough to make even the most devout churchgoer fling a plastic statue of the Infant of Prague straight through the window of the latest Italian bakery.

FORTH on the Atari:  Learning By Using Forth - confession time:  my first computer was an Atari 1040, the so-called "Jackintosh" because it was basically a knockoff of the early Macs.  It was a serviceable little machine that lasted us ten years, and in some ways I still miss it, slow and obsolete as it was.  

That said, I never did learn to program for it.  And even if I had, I would have removed my arms tendons with a rusty fondue fork before I would have dressed like either of these Beefy Barbarian Programmers, let alone tap danced on an oversized computer keyboard.  

Captain America #2 (1996) - Some of you may remember last summer's diary "How Not To Draw Comics the R___ L____ Way," which told the saga of an "artist" named Rob Liefeld who not only makes Jack Kirby's ghost sob hysterically into the nearest clump of ectoplasm, but whose execrable work on Kirby's most famous creation may well be a sign of the Apocalypse.  This cover not only features Liefeld's signature inability to draw human appendages (including a foot that appears to be jammed into Captain America's rectum, and boy oh boy did I never think I'd ever include that particular phrase in a diary) and charming lack of anatomical training, but throws in a floating face, a floating arm, Nick Fury and the Red Skull comparing their dental work, the famous vibranium shield folded in half by forces unknown, and what appears to be most of a bale of straw on Cap's head.  

And then there's the story (both drawn and written by Liefeld) inside, about which I will say nothing.  Even I have my limits.

How to Use Jiu Jitsu, -jiu-jitsu is an ancient fighting method with a long, rich tradition.  It may or may not be the sun source of the martial arts like its fictional Korean relative Sinanju, but jiu-jitsu has proved remarkably popular.  Modern offshoots have sprung up in places as far afield as Brazil, Great Britain, and Israel, and variations can be seen in movies, television shows, and other non-religious opiates of the people.  

Alas, the only previous reference I’ve been able to find to the move portrayed on this cover can be found in the title song to legendary supergroup Spinal Tap’s album Smell the Glove, which includes the famous lyric “Love your dainty fingers and daintier toes/Now jam that book right up the bad man’s nose.”  If anyone has further information, I’d be greatly obliged.

Savage Namor #23- Namor, Prince of Atlantis, is one of the oldest superheroes, first appearing in the late 1930's when he decided to drown New York in a fit of what can only be called super-pique.  He’s also arrogant, secure enough in his  fishliness masculinity to flit about clad only in scaly booty shorts, threatened to break the Winter Soldier’s arms if he attempted to give him a “Criss-mass present,” threw Captain America off a glacier, and tried to lure the Invisible Woman away from her husband because he wanted a consort and figured someone who could disappear without warning would be just the thing to delight his people.  

In short, he’s a super-putz who can swim underwater and out-sneer Galactus…but for all his myriad flaws, did he really deserve twenty-five pounds of badly tangled hair, a right arm that looks like it was assembled from the Rob Liefeld Build-Your-Own-Superhero Kit, and a royal case of elephantiasis in his teeny weeny Speedo?

How to Be Sexy with Bugs in Your Teeth -I must say that before I spotted this book, I had never once in my life considered the possibility that I would have to seduce a man with crushed Japanese beetles, lifeless grasshoppers, and juicy katydids suitable for Heck Piazza Orange Julius kiosk stuck in my dental work.  I must thank the author for the knowledge that all I need to do is wear a filmy cotton dress purchased on the remainder rack at the local head shop, drape myself across a Suzuki, and peer dreamily at the camera, preferably while listening to early Fleetwood Mac on continuous repeat.

Now, if only I can find a man who owns stock in either a motorcycle shop, a head shop, or a company that manufactures bug-proof mouthwash and toothpaste, I’ll be all set.

Wonder Woman #179 - leaving aside entirely the questionable poses, atrocious layout, and peculiar facial expressions on this cover (does Diana have gas?  Is Hippolyta on drugs?), the fact that this comic was intended to entice buyers to fork over actual cash money for one of the most epically horrible decisions in comic book history is reason enough to include it.  For this, dear and gentle readers, was the issue where, for the love of a man, Wonder Woman voluntarily gave up her powers in favor of martial arts lessons from one "I Ching" while the rest of the Amazons went into hibernation, or something.  

That's right.  Wonder Woman, the feminist icon who appeared on the very first cover of Ms., surrenders her strength, immortality, and homeland to protect her boyfriend.

Yes.  Really.


Have any of you seen The Long-Necked Madonna?  Been to Florence?  Owned any of these books or comic books?  Thrown the Infant of Prague through a window?  Eaten a cannoli made at a bakery with an Infant of Prague in the window?  Cosplayed as Wonder Woman, Namor, or a ghetto priest?  It's time to 'fess up, so don't be shy....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat May 17, 2014 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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