Thursday, 7 February 2013

Easter Eggs

This April it is appropriate to talk about Easter Eggs - those delightful little surprises that the Easter Bunny hides in unlikely places, for us to find. They are not always chocolate eggs either: they hide in paintings, movies, books and in your computer!

Google is particularly fond of hiding an easter egg to amuse the user who finds it. If you ask Google to define anagram, you get one! The list of results is headed by the message: Did you mean nag a ram?

Type into the Google search box Let It Snow , click "I'm Feeling Lucky"… and it does! If you type Google Gravity and click "I'm Feeling Lucky", Google succumbs to gravity and everything on the screen collapses and falls to the bottom.

Ask Google what is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, and it will tell you it is 42. OK, so it got the answer from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but still … Google knows 'the number of horns on a unicorn', and it knows 'what is the loneliest number'. Just ask!

Seinfeld fans will know that George Costanza's father invented a secular festival to replace Christmas: it is called Festivus, and the proceedings include The Airing of Grievances (so how is that different from Christmas?) and instead of a Christmas Tree, there is the Festivus Pole. If you type festivus into the Google search box, the Festivus Pole appears in the left margin.  Clearly the Google Guys watch a lot of Seinfeld.

As if you don't already waste enough time online, Google can surprise you with little games: If you type zerg rush into the search box and just click the normal search button,  the red and yellow letters O from the Google logo come out of the margins and start wiping the screen clean. You can shoot them down by clicking your mouse on each one until it dies. When they have all reached the bottom of the screen, the game is over, they form the letters GG for Good Game and you get your score.

One of my favourite Google surprise time wasters is the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. You know how that goes: every movie actor can be connected to Kevin Bacon in no more than six steps - for example, Marilyn Monroe's Bacon number is 2: Marilyn Monroe and Eli Wallach appeared in Making the Misfits;  Eli Wallach and Kevin Bacon appeared in Mystic River. Voila. Type any actor's name into the search box followed by the words bacon number, and see if you can find one that needs more than six steps to Kevin. I couldn't find one higher than three, and for that I had to go back to Leni Riefenstahl! Even Al Jolson is a two.

If you are using Mozilla Firefox or Chrome as your browser, type do a barrel roll into the Google search box, and the screen rotates through 360º. It doesn't work so well in Internet Explorer.

Wikipedia has one of my favourite Easter Eggs: if you type easter eggs (media) into the search box, you will get an article about easter eggs in the media, and the picture at the top right shows two bunnies and a hedgehog. Click on the hedgehog, the screen goes blank and a big basket of colourful easter eggs appear!

In the movies, Alfred Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but the ulimate Master of the Easter Egg, with his cameo appearances. He is even shaped like an easter egg!

His ingenuity was taxed in movies like Lifeboat, Rope and Dial M for Murder, where the action was confined to an apartment or indeed a lifeboat - no crowd of extras where he could hide. In Lifeboat, he appears in a newspaper ad for a slimming product, in Dial M for Murder, he is in a group photo on the wall; in Rope, we have to look through the window to see his portly outline in a red neon sign on another building.
Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein
Woody Allen hid a whole lot of easter eggs in his 2011 hit movie, Midnight in Paris. Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, Toulouse Lautrec's Moulin Rouge posters, Dali's rhinos … any number of famous artworks are casually scattered here and there as part of the set. Among the characters we recognize Cole Porter tinkling away at a piano ("Let's Do It"), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald doing the Charleston and a man trying to sell some paintings for a pittance. When you get a look at the paintings, you realise it is Matisse!

Corey Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway, and a lot of his lines come straight out of Hemingway's books. I suppose each viewer only picks up the hidden allusions that are familiar to him or her. I wonder how many easter eggs that I missed are hidden in that film!

All the biopics about artists are hotbeds of easter eggs. (Or hotnests?) Kirk Douglas paints his Vincents in Lust for Life; Charlton Heston beavers away at the statue of Moses in The Agony and the Ecstasy, but I suppose those don't strictly qualify as easter eggs, because they are not hidden.

Love is the Devil, the biopic about Francis Bacon, has many easter eggs in the form of scenes that are staged to look like his paintings, and will only be recognized by those who have seen the particular pictures.

In his bedroom is one of those old-fashioned dressing tables with the three mirrors. As Bacon's lover, George Dyer (played by Daniel Craig before he got his 007 badge) preens before the angled mirrors, we see the famous triptychs Bacon painted of him. 

Easter eggs in literature are easy to miss - an author's sly allusion to a current person or situation has a limited shelf life, unless it is about such a cause célèbre that it still resonates in the zeitgeist when the book is read years later.

M.J.Trow hides many delightful easter eggs in his novels, especially those Victorian detective stories featuring Inspector Lestrade. (Yes, he has hijacked  the Lestrade of Sherlock Holmes fame, brainchild of Conan Doyle.)  To quote only a couple:

"Beautiful car!" … "Yes, it's a Lanchester. I call her Elsa."

"Constable Marks! Make some tea, please. And send Spencer out for a packet of digestive biscuits."

I once read a forgettable whodunit (can't remember the author or title now, which just shows you) but I laughed out loud when the pathologist said: "I'll see you at the autopsy, Inspector. You know where the morgue is? 13 Miller's Court."  Now there's an easter egg par excellence! Look it up,  easter eggs are much more fun when you find them yourself.

Lots of artists put easter eggs into their paintings. Terence Cuneo, the famous railways painter, always hid a little mouse in his paintings. He was the official painter for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1952. There is a statue of him in the concourse of Waterloo Station in London, and a little mouse peeps out from under the painterly paraphernalia at the statue's feet.

Whistler liked to put a butterfly in his paintings. It evolved from his initials, JW. At the time of his bitter feud with Ruskin, he put a sting in its tail, and in the year of his marriage he added a clover to it for luck.

When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was cleaned in recent years, the workmen on the scaffolding got close enough to see tiny cherubs making rude gestures - Michelangelo hid his irreverent little jokes by making them too small to be seen from the floor below.

The depiction of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is the most recognizable piece of Western art after the Mona Lisa. An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association opines that the figures and shapes portrayed behind the figure of God appear to form an anatomically precise picture of the human brain. Michelangelo's accurate anatomical knowledge due to his covert dissection of dead bodies is well known, so this may indeed be true. If so, it is an easter egg with a time delay: it had to wait for the publication of Gray's Anatomy to be recognised.

The Arnolfini Portrait - look at the mirror.
Some painters like to hide a self-portrait among the other figures in a painting: Velasquez in Las Meninas; Jan van Eyck in The Arnolfini Portrait; Frans Hals in the group portrait of the Civic Guard of St George, and Tiepolo in our very own Cleopatra's Banquet in the NGV, come to mind. There will be many others.
Van Eyck's selfportrait in the mirror

Hans Holbein loved an easter egg: the mottled, elongated oval that becomes a skull if you look at it sideways in the foreground of The Ambassadors, not to mention all the arcane items on the shelves between the two figures, that practically illustrate their whole biographies, for those who know what they mean.

I also like Holbein's Lady With a Squirrel and Starling. The sitter is Lady Anne Lovell. The Lovell family crest contains three squirrels, no hidden surprise there.

The easter egg is the starling: the family's manor house is in East Harling, which was commonly spelt "Estarling".

Gargoyles are part of the gutter system of a building - they spout water. Grotesques are small, bizarre sculptures lurking high up on the eaves and towers. The National Cathedral in Washington DC is adorned with 112 fearsome gargoyles, and dozens of grotesques, the most famous of which is Darth Vader.

Star Wars? Not very ecclesiastical, you say? On the contrary: in the 2011 census, over 70,000 Australians declared their religion to be Jedi.

May the Force be with you!