November 12, 2019

Caricatures in Wood

        Aline Fruhauf (USA, 1907-1978) was primarily known as a caricaturist, and she worked in various media.  Here are a few of her caricatures that she made as wood block prints.  Relief printing seems like an odd medium for caricatures, which I usually think of as being very loose and spontaneous.  Indeed, Fruhauf’s woodcut portraits definitely have that look: simple lines, doodly shapes, little shading or patterns or details…  And yet they aren’t quite just reproducing the look of pen lines; there is enough roughness to remind us that wood was carved in the making of these pieces.
        The first is a portrait/caricature of Louis Michel Eilshemius, an American painter I confess I can’t recall ever having heard of before.  He looks wonderfully astonished, but in a quiet, non-demonstrative manner.  I
like the wrinkles on his sleeves, but most of all I love his curlicue eyebrows.
        The second one depicts Lord David Cecil, an author.  This one doesn’t have particularly interesting carving and is closest to looking like a simple drawing.
        We pass on, therefore, to the third, which is a self-portrait.  Although the depiction of the face is clearly a caricature, the inclusion of the shorebird decoy behind and the dog in front connects it a little more with traditional portraiture.  Fruhauf looks quite intent on the drawing she’s doing, her heavy eyebrows pressed together in concentration — but the snub nose and sharp little chin hint at a more impish personality.  This is also the carviest of the bunch, making more use of the wood block print medium’s ability to capture textures rather than simply reproducing outlines.
        I think these are fun.

[Pictures: Louis Michel Eilshemius, woodcut by Aline Fruhauf, 1974 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Lord David Cecil, woodcut by Fruhauf, 1973 (Image from liveuctioneers);
Self Portrait, woodcut by Fruhauf, undated, (Image from invaluable).]

November 8, 2019

Catching a Falling Star

        The famous song by John Donne (England, 1572-1631) is a fantasy poem only in the sense that it is so absurdly cynical as to be pure fantasy.  However, it refers to a number of fantastical themes, and has apparently exerted a strong pull on the imagination of several fantasy writers.

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

        The poem consists of lists of impossibilities, or fantasies, if you want to look at them that way.  For lovers of fantasy perhaps the appeal is that we do dream of catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing.  (As for impregnating a mandrake, I have to wonder whether that’s impossible because it’s a plant, or because you can’t get at it without its scream killing you.)  Fantasy writers do like to think of ourselves as being born to strange sights and things invisible to see, which perhaps explains why at least two authors have written books rooted in this poem.  Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is related to the poem primarily in that its action is set in motion by the protagonist setting off to catch a falling star.  There is a callback to the final stanza, however, in that by the time he returns with it to the woman he loves, he finds that she has been untrue.  Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones uses even more of the poem, with a series of episodes in which the various impossibilities of the poem occur, signalling the unravelling of a curse based on it.  There are probably numerous other references to this poem in fantasy works, which I either don’t know or am not remembering.  Put it in the comments if you think of any!
        As for Donne’s cynical point, I can attest that it’s fantasy, because I am sitting right here, and I am both true and fair.  So there.

[Pictures: The Great Comet of 1577, wood block print by Jiri Daschitzsky, 1577 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)  As a fun side note, today is the 422nd anniversary of the Great Comet of 1577 being reported by Japanese astronomers.  It was viewed by Tycho Brahe on November 13.
Mandrake root (female variety), wood block print from Ortus sanitatis printed by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Image from Internet Archive);
Delphin, wood block print from Historia aquatilium by Nicolaus Marschalk, 1520 (Image from Bodleian Rare Books).]

November 5, 2019

Of Leviathans and Copy Cats

        I’ve previously mentioned the fact that printing was invented before the concept of copyright, so early printers of books stole from each other with blithe abandon.  When you remember that before the printing press, the only way to get any book at all (short of composing one yourself from scratch) was to copy it, then you can understand that it took a while for the mindset to change.  So today I have for you a little demonstration of how this played out.
        In 1491 Jacob Meydenbach published Ortus (or Hortus) Sanitatis, the expansion of a 1485 herbal to include animals, birds, fish, and stones as well as plants.  You can note a few things from this page from that edition.  For one thing, it’s in Latin, as were most scholarly works.  Secondly, although the author (possibly Johann Wonnecke von Caub) was moving toward a scientific attitude and attempting to give accurate information about the uses of
plants and animals for medicine, the fact that this red and yellow monster is a leviathan shows that the author was still working with the bestiary tradition of finding information in religious works.  (To be fair, it’s hard to blame the Bible for this leviathan, which seems to live on land as much as water.)  Thirdly, note the hand coloring of the wood block illustrations.  Although crude, it was highly unusual for the time, making this a deluxe edition.  As for the blue and red ink in the text, I can’t tell whether that was printed or hand-painted.  At any rate, the book proved wildly successful…
        So successful, in fact, that in 1499 Johann Prüss of Strassburg thought he wouldn’t mind getting in on a little of the action, and he printed his own edition which, obviously, he simply copied from the earlier version.  Look at this leviathan entry and you notice right away that the layout  is different.  You can also see if you look a little more closely that the wood block illustration is different, as well, even though it was clearly copied from Meydenbach’s picture.  This leviathan has rolling hills in the background and very attractive decorative patterns on his spine plates, as well as an outline around the block.  Despite these minor differences, this would clearly be a flagrant copyright violation if such a thing as copyright violation had existed.
        In addition to straight-up copies, there were also translations, and in 1521 Laurence Andrew produced an abridged version in English entitled The Noble lyfe & natures of man, of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes.  Once again, he copied the previous illustrations.  Comparing his leviathan with the others you can see that it has a little more space above its tail, a medium amount of embellishment on its plates, and a little nick out of its tongue where the thin wood outline got carved away too much.  You can see that Andrew has also copied the illustrations of the next creature, called “lanificus,” which seems from the description to be something along the lines of a silkworm.
        So that’s all pretty straightforward, but this particular wood block print illustrates another habit of early printers, because… what’s this? 
That’s right, it’s the same block yet again - this time the exact same block - used again in the same 1521 edition by Andrew as the illustration for the dragon.  After all, having gone through all the work of copying and carving a block, it seems such a waste to use it for only one animal!

[Pictures: Leviathan, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis, Meydenbach edition, 1491 (Image from University of Cambridge);
Leviathan, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis, Prüss edition, 1499 (Image from Boston Public Library);
Leviathan, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man, by Laurence Andrew, 1521;
Dragon, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man, by Andrew, 1521 (Images from The Wellcome Trust).]

October 29, 2019

Words of the Month - Busy Be-

        Marie Antoinette was bewigged, bejeweled, beribboned, and beheaded.  I consider this one of my better bon mots, and what makes it interesting is that despite the same prefix on all four words, the queen was amply adorned with the wigs, jewels, and ribbons, but the head no longer adorned her at all.  So what’s going on here?
        The prefix be- most commonly means something like “to make a certain way, to cause a certain state, to provide with.”  Examples of this include
bewig, beribbon, bespectacle - meaning to provide with these accoutrements
bespatter, bedaub, befoul, becloud, - meaning not just to provide but to completely cover or surround with spattering, daubing, foulness, clouds…
becalm, befuddle, bewilder, betroth, benight, besot - to cause to be in the state of calm, fuddlement, wilderness, being pledged in troth, night’s darkness, sottedness…
bewitch, bedevil, becat - to cause to be in a state of being covered or surrounded, indeed
beset, by witchery, devils, the cat…  (You will not find becat in the dictionary, but it is a word in common use in our household.  “Can you please hand me my book?  I can’t get up because I’m becatted.”)
        There are also words in which be- seems to make a verb transitive, as in
begrudge, belabor, bemoan, bewail - in which you grudge something, labor at something, moan or wail about something…
        But none of these seems to cover behead.  One theory is that the be- in behead is “privative.”  In other words, rather than meaning “to provide with,” in this case it means “to deprive of.”  Far be it from me to say that the busy be- prefix can’t have multiple and even seemingly contradictory meanings - certainly there are other prefixes that do.  But this one seems a little odd to me, as I can’t think of a single other case of such a meaning.  So another theory is that be- is an intensifier (see the post on disgruntled for more on another intensifier).  If we take be- as an intensifier, then the verb head can be taken to mean “to remove the head” and behead means “seriously, the head was totally removed.” (See the posts on contronyms and controphonic synonyms for other verbs used in this way.)  This seems plausible because there are other examples in which be- can be interpreted as an intensifier, including
betray, berate, betroth, behave, bewilder, bedazzle - consider that these mean completely dazzling, being utterly lost in the wilds, being pledged solely and thoroughly, and so on…
        However, the be- in all of these words could also be explained simply with its other meanings, so I don’t know.  I think behead remains a bit of a mystery.

[Pictures: Maria Antoinetta, Queen of France, engraving by anon. British artist (Image from Smithsonian Institution);
Napping Cat, reduction block print by Jane Grant Tentas (Image from her Etsy shop JGTentas).]

October 25, 2019

Cities of Dreams

        I’ve been on a bit of an architecture kick, perhaps as a reaction to all those imaginary creatures.  One recent piece is a real building, which I’ll share some other time, but here are a couple of others, just as imaginary as the creatures, but with a refreshing dose of geometry.  There’s no particular rhyme or reason to these cities; they’re really just doodles of whatever struck my fancy, but I’ll share a few of the things I was thinking about.
     1. Variety is the spice of life.  I was enjoying trying to throw in a little of everything, but especially towers: steeples, skyscrapers, minarets, turrets, spires, from different architectural styles of different times and places…
     2. We’re better together.  I didn’t want the buildings separate, each on their own; I wanted them to be connected so that imaginary people can easily go from one to the next, visit their neighbors, attend events in any building, and really consider the whole city their home…
     3. Grey is beautiful.  I don’t have pre-made grey ink, but mix it from black and white.  For each of these pieces I had printed another black block first, and then added white ink without cleaning the plate and brayer in between.  As I printed each edition and added more and more white as I went along, the grey got lighter and lighter.  I found that I quite liked the very pale grey, like a mist (or perhaps a smog, but hopefully not!), but I also liked the variations.  You could try to make a matched set, or choose to pair different shades to keep things interesting.
     4. Everything’s better with dirigibles.  I knew right away I wanted the dirigible in the second city, partly to add a contrasting horizontal shape and partly to add a steampunk vibe, but also as evidence of inhabitants and movement.  When disembarking from the dirigible, you can slide down the long chute to the lower levels.  Or perhaps it’s got an escalator inside for those who like things a little more sedate, which would also make it possible to get up the same way.  But of course you can also use the elevator in the docking building.
        In a real city I’d definitely want trees, parks, and lots and lots of rooftop gardens, but these blocks were all about the straight lines and stark contrasts.  A major inspiration for the idea was an installation at the Tate Modern in London this summer “by” artist Olafur Eliasson, in which visitors were provided with 1000 kilograms of white Legos and invited to contribute whatever they wanted to the “Cubic Structural Evolution Project.”  Many of the elements listed above were present in this collaborative art project: huge variety of unrelated architectural styles, ad hoc connections between structures, and monochromatic palette.  But no dirigibles.

[Pictures: City I, rubber block  print by AEGN, 2019;
City II, rubber block  print by AEGN, 2019;
T at Olafur Eliasson’s Cubic Structural Evolution Project, photo by AEGN, 2019.]

October 22, 2019

Here's Something Cool: Hobbit Holes

        Have you ever wanted your own hobbit-hole?  Of course you have, for that, as Tolkien says, means comfort.  And now you can - or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.  There’s a company in Maine (Wooden Wonders) that makes sheds with rounded roofs and round windows and doors.  They can be used as playhouses, tool sheds, chicken coops… These are already pretty cute, but what makes the possibility of really enticing a hobbit is that there is an option for a sod roof, so that you can landscape the whole thing to look like a tunnel into a hill.  And that’s Something Cool.
        There’s really nothing more to say.  How much analysis do you need?  But I include another picture that’s perhaps what you get when you cross hobbits with elves: no longer a hobbit hole, but equally magical.  How I would have loved either of these options as a playhouse when I was little!  And I would be more than happy to have either of them now as a shed or… No, who am I kidding?  I still want it as a playhouse.

[Pictures: photos of “Hobbit Holes” from Wooden Wonders.]

October 18, 2019

Cat and Dog Show

        This weekend I will be at Roslindale Open Studios, and everyone is invited!  I have spent the last two days trying to restock cards and other such bits and bobs, while doing battle with recalcitrant printers, but I think I’m in good shape now.  The car is mostly packed, and I’ll set off bright and early tomorrow to get set up before we open at eleven.
        Two weeks ago was another show, the first annual “Taste of Needham Open Studios.”  I’ve remarked before how amused I am when shows take on themes for me, and the theme of that last show was definitely Cats and Dogs.  Almost everything I sold was cats  and a few dogs: cat cards, cat bookplates, cat necklaces, my new cat magnets, and original prints of cats, dogs - and one honey bee.  Among those purchased were two of the edition of one of my pieces that had its debut there.  I had carved it over the summer during my classes, and printed it a little later, and this was the first show since.  The pattern on the paper bag was a bit of an experiment, since I was trying to get a medium value halfway between the black of the cat and the “white” of the paper.  Of course, I didn’t print on white paper, but instead used brown-paper-bag paper, to keep with the theme just for fun.  It’s not quite a mini-print, but it is quite small and inexpensive.
        We’ll see whether the strangely narrow felicentric theme continues tomorrow, or whether the love gets shared a little more widely in Roslindale!  Plus, this is the last weekend of "re/seeing HUMDRUM" a large exhibit at Gallery Twist in which I have four pieces showing.  It's a fun exhibit to see.

[Picture: Curiosity, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

October 15, 2019

Rainbows and Other Obstacles

        Here are some quirky bits of SFF from Austrian graphic artist Moriz Jung (1885-1915).  At some point I’d like to share some of his wood block prints, but until I can track down a few more images for those, these are lithographs.  They were designed as post cards for the Wiener Werkstätte, and you can see that Jung had a whimsical but slightly dark sense of humor.  His images of airplanes date from 1911, when airplane flight was still a novelty and a wonder… and still quite experimental and highly dangerous.  He clearly had a grand time letting his sci fi imagination play with the possibilities of this new technology and how it might fit into the world.  Imagine the airplane inadvertently discovering that the rainbow is in fact solid (as witnessed by a comical photographer), the airplane arrogating the divine role of Pegasus (aka the Aeroplegasus), the airplane allowing a man to reach the
lofty heights of the giraffes (and note that the pilot is an ape)… 

        Jung began designing postcards while himself a student at the Wiener Werkstätte in 1907, and these next two examples date from that period.  Even cars were still quite new and exciting in 1907, and you can see that this idea of cutting-edge technologies interacting in amusing ways with the rainbow was a recurring one for Jung.  Many of his ideas seem to me in the category of “tall tales,” which I think of as stories that include fantastical elements, but presented not as if they are caused by magic but rather as “plain facts.”  Of course they’re really humorous exaggerations and embroideries on
possibilities.  This last one is an excellent example of the type: “Variety Act Number 9: Aldo Mario Brasso, Artist of the Death Leap.”  I tried to look up whether Aldo Mario Brasso was a real person, and if so what sort of actual leaping he did, but I could find nothing.  Nor could I find anything about “Variety Act Number 11: Mac Bull of Philadelphia in His Frightful Loop-the-loop Ride in His Automobile.”  The text goes on to give the car brand as Crash, tire brand Burstish, and general representation for Austria as Vienna Carinthian.  (As Vienna is far from the Carinthian region, I assume this is a further joke.)  So I suppose that Jung must have made them up entirely.  I think he’s a lot of fun.
        Sadly, Jung was killed in World War I, like so many promising young men, so we cannot see what other wonderful things he might have imagined if he had had the chance.

[Pictures: Hindernis Regenbogen (Rainbow Obstacle), lithograph by Moriz Jung, 1911;
Der Aeroplegasus, lithograph by Jung, 1911;
Unblutige Jagd auf Giraffen (Bloodless Giraffe Hunt), lithograph by Jung, 1911;
Varietenummer 11: Mac Bull aus Philadelphia…lithograph by Jung, 1907;
Varietenummer 9: Aldo Mario Brasso, Todessprungkünstler, lithograph by Jung, 1907 (Images from The Met).]

October 11, 2019

The Grand Marhoot

        As of this morning 68% of my Kickstarter rewards are delivered or consigned to the post.  I’ve been going to the post office every day or two with 10-12 packages at a time, and am getting to be best buddies with Michael and Marc at my local post office.  I should be able to get all the rest of the packages on their way next week, so if yours hasn’t arrived yet, it won’t be too much longer.  And while you wait, let me tell you a bit about one of the most special creatures in the book…
        This is the Grand Marhoot.  The Grand Marhoot is, as the note in the book explains, “a particularly gentle, thoughtful creature who loves to be surrounded by books.”  She was requested by one of my most generous backers who suggested that I invent a creature inspired by a mutual friend of ours, who is herself an inspiration.  I placed the Grand Marhoot among books, which is how the real person has lived her entire life, as far as I know, with knitted wings to represent her own knitting and the knitted gifts bestowed on her by friends.  She is also shown laughing, because one of the things I find most endearing about her is that despite her increasing forgetfulness, rather than getting frustrated or angry she just laughs gently.  The timing of this print is meaningful, too, because she’s just had to move out of her apartment into assisted living, and her books have all had to be sorted, and packed up, and given away.  She seems to be resigning herself to this, too, but there’s no doubt that it's a difficult transition.
        As an art assignment, I’ve never done anything quite like this before: inventing a mythical creature inspired by a real person.  I hope it serves as a cheerful reminder of all the real person’s most lovable traits, and that we can indeed learn from her “that gentleness and laughter bring light wherever they rest.”
        By the way, “Grand Marhoot” is an anagram of the real person’s name, so extra credit points to anyone who can guess it!

[Picture: The Grand Marhoot, rubber block print by AEGN, from On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, 2017.]