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.]

October 8, 2019

Walk to a Park

        October 10 is National Walk to a Park Day (not to be confused with National Take a Walk In a Park Day on March 30).  The point of this day is to highlight the importance of having  accessible parks, as measured by being within a ten minute walk of home.  Where I live we have one wooded natural park about 10 minutes away, plus two school playgrounds and some playing fields in other directions.  It is a rare day that I don’t walk through or past one of them, and we also have about 4 larger parks within a 5 minute drive.  To highlight the importance these parks have for me, today I’m sharing just a few of the many pieces I’ve made over the years based on photos or sketches taken at parks.
        We’ll start with a fern, commemorating the fact that I learned to identify dozens of species of ferns while walking through parks, and have always loved ferns.  This is a beech fern, which can be seen in parks and natural areas throughout the US and much of Canada.  It never fails to be lovely.
        I confess that I don’t remember whether this particular dragonfly was spotted in my own yard or at our nearby park.  For years I took my camera to the park and photographed dozens and dozens of dragonflies of all colors and patterns, as well as photographing them in my garden.  One (or more?) of those photos became the basis of this wood block print.  I also photographed all manner of other bugs, birds, plants, and flowers.  That was before I had a phone with camera, and if you have a phone camera with you all the time there’s really no excuse for failing to stop and admire all the small natural happenings that are busy at even the smallest, most urban park.
        Sometimes some of the nature even follows you home -- but hopefully not ticks!  I really hate ticks, even if they are part of Nature, but I am rather fond of cockleburs, which some people consider to be just as much of a pest.  I made this print as an X for my botanical alphabet, because the cocklebur’s scientific genus is xanthium, and I enjoy seeing them growing in more overgrown, meadowy parkland.
        Finally, one of my favorite denizens of our local park, the painted turtle.  I always look for them, especially on sunny days in the spring, and they never fail to cheer me up if I see them on their log poking out of the water.  Some of the reference photos for this print were actually taken at a couple of other parks in eastern Massachusetts that we visited at various times.  I especially love the ones with boardwalk paths that go through wetlands so that I can get a little closer into the turtles’ favored habitats.
        These are far from my only pieces inspired by parks.  I’ve done many wildflowers and birds, a frog, a bee, a grasshopper, park benches, and more.  The fact is that people need parks.  We need to be able to get amongst some plants, from grass, to flowers, to trees, and to feel bedrock and dirt underfoot.  It may seem like a minor thing, but it really is important that everyone have convenient access to local parks.  Think about it, walk to your local park on the 10th (or maybe on the weekend, if that’s when you get a chance), and be sure to speak up to save the parks you have, and create new ones for those who have none.

[Pictures: Broad Beech Fern, wood block print with chine collé by AEGN, 1997;
Dragonfly, wood block print by AEGN, 2006;
Cocklebur, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Ten Turtles, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013.]

October 1, 2019

Prints by Kentridge

        William Kentridge (South Africa, b. 1955) is one of South Africa’s biggest-name artists, famous for prints, drawings, and animated films.  His prints, however, are not generally relief prints, and thus I do not generally take much interest in his work!  I do have a few interesting things for you today, however.  First are two prints that are drypoint etchings, not relief prints.  The image is carved (or scratched) into the surface, but the ink is pushed down into those scratches,  wiped away from the raised areas, and then printed.  So, unlike a relief print, the lines that are carved print in black (ink) rather than white (no ink).  I find these interesting, though, because of the printing plates: old vinyl records.  This just goes to show once again that anything that can be carved can be printed.  I even snagged a couple of old records at the reuse-it shed at our town dump to experiment with what they might look like printed in relief, but I haven’t actually tried anything yet.  As for Kentridge’s prints, the cat is rather fun, and there does seem to be some sort of logical connection between a cat, scratching, a record, and making noise!  One other interesting note about these is that the record labels have printed with a sort of lithography effect, in which the ink clearly stuck to the paper of the label more than to the printed words on the label.
        While I’m at it, I will also offer you two linoleum block prints by Kentridge.  These are large scale, 7 and 8 feet tall, and must come across as quite monumental, although I have not seen them in person myself.  The man/tree is clearly uprooted, but I can’t tell you why the woman is a telephone!  They have a sort of fantasy transformation vibe, and I’m sorry to confess that I find them whimsical, although given Kentridge’s own statements about his work, they are undoubtedly intended to be about themes of loss, conflict, and oppression, and almost certainly not “whimsical”.  I like the contrast of the very bold, simple silhouettes against distant textured backgrounds.  As I mentioned, lino is an uncommon medium for Kentridge, but he clearly can use it to strong effect when he wants to!

[Pictures: Living Language (Cat), and Living Language (Panic Picnic), drypoints by William Kentridge, 1999 (photo by AEGN at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College);
Telephone Lady, linocut by Kentridge, 2000 (Image from David Krut Projects);
Walking Man, linocut by Kentridge, 2000 (Image from Art Gallery NSW).]

September 27, 2019

Words of the Month - Grawlixes and Other Maledicta

        September 24 was National Punctuation Day, in honor of which this month’s word refers to a very strange and particular sort of quasi-punctuation.  A grawlix is the series of graphical symbols used to represent swearing, as in “What the #@#% is a grawlix?”  The word was coined in 1964 by Mort Walker, the creator of the Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois comic strips,  but he did not invent the use of symbols to bleep out cussing.  That innovation can be credited to Rudolph Dirks who created The Katzenjammer Kids, and his earliest use of the grawlix may be this strip in 1902.  When you think about it, this is really very clever, because it allows the cartoonist to depict extreme emotions, a staple of comedy, without actually using any “inappropriate” language.  Comics are both visual art and written language, and the grawlix blends the two to provide a solution in both realms.
        The question of swearing is an interesting linguistic topic in itself, and people have spent much ink and many pixels discussing what words are considered inappropriate, in what situations, why people use them anyway, and whether or not it is commendable to avoid them or to pile in as many as vocally possible.  It seems to be a universal that societies pick certain words to simultaneously forbid and embrace.  I myself generally do not use any “swear words” unless I’m quoting someone who does, because I feel that the usual cussing indicates a certain lack of creativity and linguistic precision, not to mention causing pointless offense, and I’m nothing if not a pedantic prude.  Nevertheless, I myself found occasion to embrace the grawlix in my book The Bad Advice of Grandma Hasenfuss.  Middle school student
Danny reports to his grandmother the misadventures of his days, and a running joke is the swearing proclivities of one fellow student and the school principal.  But a seventh grader clearly won’t type such language in emails to his grandmother, so he uses grawlixes to report the offending dialogue.  On a meta level, of course, it allows me as the author to keep things clean for the middle grade audience, as well.  As Grandma Hasenfuss says, “I appreciate your circumspection in the matter of rude language.  Should you ever need to report on such dialogue, you may respect my old-fashioned morals by using %$# and *@& and so on.  I never say anything else myself, no matter how extreme the provocation.”  So thank you to Dirks for inventing this graphic solution that allows cartoonists and me to have our cake and eat it, too.
        Walker actually first used the word grawlix to indicate scrawly scribbles, along with jarns, which were spirals, and nittles, which were star and asterisk shapes.  The entire category of cartoon cussing he called maledicta.  Now, however, jarn and nittle are mere footnotes, while grawlix is the word that’s become more popular.  Its meaning has also shifted.  In comics all sorts of symbol can be used to indicate swearing, and they can all be called grawlixes generally, but the word’s most specific referent is the symbols generally available for typing on a keyboard: @#$%&*!
        Grawlix is not the only contender for its definition, however.  Language columnist Ben Zimmer coined obscenicon, which has also proven popular, and of course one can always simply talk about bleeps.  Indeed, if you ever need to pronounce a grawlix (as, for example, while reading The Bad Advice of Grandma Hasenfuss aloud), strings of symbols seem to be most commonly pronounced “bleep bleep bleepity bleep,” and sometimes “blankety-blank,” or variations thereof.

[Pictures: detail from “How Uncle Heinie Puts up a Holly Wreath” from The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks, 1902 (Image from Barnacle Press).]

September 24, 2019

Printing Universal Knowledge

        I inherited from the respectable middle-class packrats among my ancestors a 10 volume set of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People (American Revised Edition) of 1885.  William and Robert Chambers founded their publishing company in 1819 in Edinburgh and became famous for a host of reference works including various iterations of their encyclopaedia.  These were illustrated, of course, with wood blocks and wood engravings, and this summer I was tickled to see a selection of those very blocks.
        Actually, I’m not sure whether any of the specific blocks on display when I saw them were used in my particular edition of the encyclopaedia; over the years Chambers published many books, and the displayed blocks weren’t labelled with what entry they had been used to illustrate, so I couldn’t easily check.  So today I am sharing a couple of the blocks I saw, and a couple of the blocks for which I did actually track down the printed page.  For the most part these images are not particularly beautiful.  Their intention is utilitarian illustration, not Art.  Nevertheless, the diagram of a factory and the facade of an Assyrian temple struck me for their interesting geometry.  Looking at the blocks in the dimly lit case, I couldn’t see finely engraved details, or make out the effect of shading done with cross-hatching, but I could appreciate the nice, bold geometric patterns.
        These bats are part of the National Museum of Scotland’s collection, but not currently on display.  However, I was able to see that they are the actual blocks used in my actual books, which is kind of cool.  It’s also always fun to be able see both a block and how it prints.  In this case, you can see that they’re the pretty standard Victorian wood engraving style: lots of little texture lines, but not a lot of variation in line width or use of solid blacks and whites (except for white backgrounds).

        Finally I’m including one last block that I did not see at the museum and have not found printed in my encyclopaedia.  I’ve posted it here because I really wish I could see what it looks like printed, because I think it would be a really cool one.  It depicts a “vivarium,” which has water like an aquarium and earth like a terrarium, all in one.  It has water creatures, plants, and flying insects, and I just love all the details.  I think it must be a bit of a fantasy because I can’t imagine butterflies and dragonflies could really live in that small a container, but it gives an impression of an entire world contained in a wonderfully Victorian neo-Gothic case.  In fact, I can’t help suspecting that this case is actually magic!

[Pictures: The plan of a factory, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1830-40’s;
An Assyrian temple, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1830-40’s;
Skeleton of Bat, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1860;
Bat in Repose, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1860;
Entry on Bat illustrated with wood block prints, Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People (American Revised Edition), 1885;
Vivarium, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1830-40’s (Images from National Museum of Scotland, and photo by AEGN).]

September 20, 2019

A Few Thoughts on Cancel Culture

        Over the years I have featured the work of many “problematic” creators, from Nazi-sympathizing artists to sexist poets, but the rising tide now is “cancel culture,” which is the idea of boycotting the work and shunning the people whose personal behavior or opinions are considered unacceptable.  This can be a powerful way to stand up to injustice.  It can give those who feel victimized a sense of reclaiming power and agency.  It can bring larger social awareness to issues of prejudice or oppression, and to the specific crimes of specific celebrities.  It can cut down financial support for a hateful agenda.  It can  educate society about things that people find hurtful.  This is all Good.  But there are situations in which cancel culture is itself problematic.
        My first question is what we do about the work of those who are long gone?  Our cancelling of their work can’t teach them a lesson.  And what if the work itself is untainted by the sins of the creator?  With literature one might argue that it’s impossible for the writer’s prejudices not to contaminate the work (although I’m not convinced that this is in all cases true), but with visual art or, say, classical music, it’s much easier to feel that a work is beautiful, moving, and sublime, without there being any evidence of the artist or composer’s less admirable traits.  Is the art less beautiful if the artist has sins?  Does it lose its power when you remember that a mere flawed human created it?
        Then to focus in on these flawed humans (dead or living) and their less admirable traits… How bad do they have to be to be cancelled?  My belief is that there has only ever been one perfect Creator, and of course many people don’t believe even that.  So if no one is perfect, how bad is too bad?  Things may be clear at the extremes - that living artists directly profiting from their atrocities should be boycotted, while artists who simply failed to get along with their step-parents can probably still be accepted - but human behavior is a continuum, not a step function.  Do we cancel every single creator in Western Culture before, say, 1960?  Was there ever a single one who was not sexist and/or racist and/or anti-semitic and/or Islamophobic and/or homophobic and/or…?  Where do we draw the line?  And who gets to draw the line?
        And now let’s think about change.  Sometimes people change.  Sometimes people do actually learn and grow.  Cancel culture, with its instant firestorm outrage, leaves no room for this.  People are cancelled for past errors, whether or not they have since changed, and they are cancelled for present errors large and small, without the possibility of repentance.  Cancel culture’s purpose is punishment rather than rehabilitation, and scandal rather than education.  Something that can have so many positive possibilities in fighting society’s ills is all too often more of a sledge hammer than a scalpel.
        This can end up counterproductive, leaving people afraid to engage in dialogue or address thorny issues, damping creativity, and leading to a toxic environment where cancel culture is used as a justification to attack and demean anyone with whom there is disagreement.  Of course this is not how hearts and attitudes are changed.  Speaking for myself, I am quite certain that I have have not managed to get through the past almost-fifty years of speaking and writing without making statements that are offensive or hurtful to someone.  I promise you that whatever it was, unkindness and bigotry were not my intention, but I am ignorant about many things, and sometimes thoughtless, and often flippant.  If I do something wrong I would like my error to be explained to me so that I can try to avoid making the same mistake again.  I know education takes time and energy, and people get tired of having to educate ignorant idiots all the time.  I know that I don’t actually enjoy being criticized, and might be a little more prickly about criticism than I should.  But the question is simply: Which is more important to you, the grand rush of self-righteous outrage, or actually fixing the problem?
        Are there any ways to engage with problematic artists and art without either condoning the bad aspects or cancelling everything?  There’s a lot to think about, and this is just a short treatment of it.  I don’t claim to have covered all the issues or addressed all the concerns, or to be the first to have considered these questions.  If anyone has further thoughts, counterarguments, or reactions, I am open to hearing them.  I have merely laid out some of my own thoughts and reactions to this aspect of our current social environment, because it touches me closely.  Although I am small-time enough to fly under the radar of any huge backlash (I’ve never had a frontlash to begin with!) it is my job to lay myself open in many ways, and I do worry about making an inadvertent misstep, hurting someone’s feelings, and being branded as an irredeemably horrible human being.

[Picture: Desbrozando (Clearing) wood block print by Mariano Paredes, undated (Image from  Docs Populi).]

September 17, 2019

Nakayama's Horses

        Here’s another wood block print I saw in a museum this summer.  This is “Dancing Stallion” by Nakayama Tadashi (Japan, 1927-2014).  Nakayama worked with the traditional Japanese wood block printing technique of different blocks for each color, printed with a baren rather than a press.  However, unlike the traditional method, he did every stage himself, drawing, carving, and printing.  He also departed from tradition in his style, which was heavily influenced by Persian miniature paintings and Paolo Uccello’s Renaissance horse paintings.  The influence of Uccello is obvious in the subject matter of horses, but specifically in their monumental size and action, and in how richly decorated they are.  From the Persian miniatures Nakayama took the use of borders, rich colors, detailed patterns, and the use of gold and silver leaf.

        Looking at these pieces, it’s almost hard to recognize them as wood block prints because they’re so busy and detailed, not to mention quite large.  The one above which I saw was about 2x3 feet.  Some of Nakayama’s pieces have as many as 47 colors printed with 35 separate blocks!  I can’t tell how many blocks might have gone into these particular examples, but obviously it must have been incredibly laborious to build up a single piece from so many blocks, and Nakayama famously produced only a few editions of prints each year.  He was also especially famous for his horses.

        One particular recurring motif among Nakayama’s horses is the title “ema.”  The word literally means “picture-horse” and ema are wooden plaques displayed at Shinto shrines with prayers or wishes.  Horses are commonly pictured on these ema because horses are able to carry messages to the kami (spirits or gods).  The practice also spread to Japanese Buddhism.  So when Nakayama entitles his wood block prints “Ema,” he’s clearly giving the horse an extra dimension and significance.
        Although I like these pieces, in a way I don’t like them as printmaking, because it’s so hard to see the printmaking in them.  On the other hand, I can certainly stand in awe of the technical mastery required to produce them!

[Pictures: Dancing Stallion, woodblock print by Nakayama Tadashi, 1987 (This image from Azuma Gallery, as it was clearer than the photo I took in the National Museum of Scotland);
Running in the Afternoon, woodblock by Nakayama, 1974;
Blue Ema, woodblock by Nakayama, 1989;
Running Horses, woodblock by Nakayama, 1998 (Three images from Floating World Gallery).]

September 14, 2019

Dickinson's Fantasy

        Emily Dickinson (USA, 1830-1886) is an enigmatic poet, whose voice is unlike any other.  Although it’s clear that her imagination is rich, wild, and original, no one would characterize her as a fantasy poet.  She certainly does make use of fantasy images, as in
I started early, took my dog, 
And visited the sea; 
The mermaids in the basement 
Came out to look at me…

        Or this description of a storm
The creatures chuckled on the roofs 
And whistled in the air, 
And shook their fists and gnashed their teeth. 
And swung their frenzied hair. 

        But those instances are metaphorical, so for something truly out of the world of fantasy, we have to look at 
The only ghost I ever saw 
Was dressed in mechlin, -- so; 
He wore no sandal on his foot, 
And stepped like flakes of snow. 
His gait was soundless, like the bird, 
But rapid, like the roe; 
His fashions quaint, mosaic, 
Or, haply, mistletoe. 

His conversation seldom, 
His laughter like the breeze 
That dies away in dimples 
Among the pensive trees. 
Our interview was transient,-- 
Of me, himself was shy; 
And God forbid I look behind 
Since that appalling day! 

        What I find so remarkable and wonderful about this description of a ghost is its apparently benign presence -  so courtly and shy, even laughing rather than moaning or shrieking or behaving in any way scarily - and yet it nevertheless inspires utter terror.  This is a reminder that the idea of ghosts is frightening not really because they are harmful or evil, although certainly there is plenty of folklore and fantasy that portrays them as such, but because they are inexplicable, because they are from outside our own world and knowledge, and because they know and remind us of death.  And that’s enough to be appalling.  Capturing that simple truth gives this poem a serious kick.
        As for calling it “fantasy,” I don’t know how Dickinson herself viewed it.  Was it another metaphorical description, using “ghost” to get at some other idea?  Did she really see an apparition and consider this a literal description of a literal ghost encounter?  Or was she imagining what ghosts might be like in her life?

[Picture: Emily Dickinson II, wood engraving by Barry Moser (Image from R. Michelson Galleries).]