October 16, 2018

That's No Moon!

        A long time ago (about five hundred years) in a continent far far away (Europe) an Italian engineer produced a sketchbook of fantastic gadgets he claimed to have invented and was making available to rich and powerful patrons.  Among his distinctly medieval-style sketches are a wonderful variety of automatons, fountains, musical instruments, weapons, locks, special effects for stage plays and pageants, and… the Death Star.  I mean, just look at this!  What else could it possibly be?
        The engineer, Giovanni or Johannes de Fontana (Italy, c 1395- c1455), included among his vaunted inventions a mishmash of items that were physically impossible, as well as some that he could have actually built, and still others that might have been onto something plausible, but were probably ahead of the technology of the time.  It seems likely, therefore, that Fontana never actually built a
Death Star.  After all, we’d probably have heard about it if Venice had obliterated Milan instead of agreeing to the Peace of Lodi.  Plus, it looks like he’s got the firing pattern of its superlaser a little wrong.  Still, he clearly had the basic concept, and even included lots of star destroyers in the scene, too.  (I confess I don’t know what the thing at the bottom is, though.)

[Pictures: Death Star(?) illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber by Johannes de Fontana, 1420 (Image from Public Domain Review);
Death Star, still from Star Wars, 1977.]

ANNOUNCEMENT for everyone in the Greater Boston Area... or maybe even all of New England!  This weekend is ROSLINDALE OPEN STUDIOS, a wonderful event and one of my biggest shows of the year.  There's always a great buzz and great art, so come on by!

October 12, 2018

Saito's Signals

        Saito Kiyoshi (Japan, 1907-1997) worked as a designer for a railway corporation before taking up printmaking.  Clearly it left him with an interest in the aesthetics of railways, and I really like these two woodblock prints depicting railway depots.  There are no trains here, just the skeleton of infrastructure without any movement or life.  There are tracks, girders, and signals: all manmade geometry.  The dark colors could be interpreted as baleful or ominous, but  for some reason they seem almost peaceful to me.  I guess it’s that everything is so strictly ordered, mathematical and under control .  I suppose they’re set at dusk, or just before dawn when no trains are running.
        I don’t know how many blocks went into each piece; I’m guessing three or maybe four if the red lights got their own separate block.  (The red and the skyline could have been done in a single block inked in two colors.)  The grey ink of the ground is rolled on lightly enough to show a lot of white speckles, which evokes gravel.  Against this gravelly grey, the solid black and red look particularly dramatic, and the shadowy skylines offer a fitting backdrop.

[Pictures: Signal (B), color woodblock print by Saito Kiyoshi, 1962 (Image from Our Sense of Place);
Signal (A), color woodblock print by Saito, 1962 (Image from invaluable).]

October 8, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Mechanical Nef

        This amazing renaissance creation definitely gets some sort of fantasy cred, despite being 100% historically for real.  On the hour the model galleon bursts into life, with three heralds and seven or eight prince electors parading past the emperor on the deck, while ten trumpets, a drum, and a timpani play music, and various sailors move among the ropes and ring bells in the crows nest.  It even trundles across the table and fires a cannon with a puff of smoke.  You can see a video showing the elaborate golden decor, the clockwork, and the  various movements, here.  (The narration is in French, but there’s not much narration anyway.  Mostly it’s just the ship doing its thing.)
         It’s credited to one Hans Schlottheim (Germany, 1544/1547-1625 or-6), who was originally a travelling watchmaker who went on to work in the courts of Bavaria, Prague, and Saxony.  He may have devised the clockwork, with additional goldsmiths and artisans helping with the decor.  This nef may have been in the collection of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, or perhaps the Elector of Saxony.  This particular nef is one of three similar ones, of which historian Lisa Jardine observes “The rich,… the aristocracy, everybody wanted to own a bit of technology - something with cogs and wheels and winding bits… It immediately fascinates everyone that you can wind something up and it goes without your touching it.  Clockwork is magic in the sixteenth century.”  And really, even knowing that it’s all mechanical, it’s hard not to think some wizardry must have been involved just to figure out how to put it all
together and make it work.  The clockwork was cutting edge, and so was the subject: this sort of ship was on the verge of conquering the Earth, the renaissance equivalent of the space shuttle.  Note, too, the wonderful pegasus and sea monsters wreathing the ship at the water line.  Marvelous stuff!
        Here’s another of Schlottheim’s automata, a belltower from about 1580.  And here is another video, showing the working of another of his galleons.  These magical clockwork toys were made as dinner table decorations that would most definitely have impressed the guests at banquets.  It certainly makes a centerpiece of flowers seem ordinary!  (Although flowers, too, have their magic, not to be underestimated.)

[Pictures: Nef of Charles Quint, by Hand Sclottheim, c 1580 (Image from Artsy);
Glockenturmautomat (Bell tower automata) by Schlottheim, c 1580 (Image from Kunst Historisches Museum Wien).]
Quotation from Jardine in A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor, 2010.

October 2, 2018

Woodcuts by Ibañez

        Here is a sampling of wood block prints by Josemaria Ibañez (Chile, b. 1975).  He has a range of styles, from relatively naturalistic to quite stylized and symbolic, but all his work has a bold, graphic quality.  I’m featuring a few of my favorites, of course.
        First up, an aerial view with lots of little details reminiscent of “Where’s Waldo” or something by Mitsumasa Anno.  There are people sunning in the plaza, and people visible in a couple of windows.  A woman appears to be dancing across a crosswalk.  Alas, these pictures are very small while the original is fairly large (50x80cm), so I can’t really enjoy the details as much as I would like, but it’s clearly a fun piece.
        Next, another one that frustrates me with my inability to see it larger.  This one is a pretty realistic view of Heidelberg, Germany, with proper perspective and all.  Nevertheless, the tree-covered
hills are patterned in an interesting, stylized way, and the use of both black and white outlines around some of the roofs and buildings is characteristic.  I find the black, untextured trees in the foreground especially effective.
        And then, for variety, a very simple, almost cartoonish piece, entitled “I Don’t Want to Be Late.”  I can certainly relate to the character vaulting along the treetops, bypassing all the cars and trucks.  Who hasn’t imagined that they could go faster than the traffic, flying along in leaps and bounds?

[Pictures: Mapocho Arereo (Aerial Mapocho), wood block print by Josemaria Ibañez;
Heidelberg, wood block print by Ibañez;
No Quiero Llegar Tarde (I Do Not Want to be Late), wood block print by Ibañez (All images from Josemaria Ibañez).]

September 28, 2018

Words of the Month - Doublets

        In its enthusiasm for other languages’ words, English sometimes adopts a foreign word multiple times over the centuries, ending up with multiple English words that come from the same root.  These words are a type of  doublets: words in the same language derived by different routes of transmission from the same source.  I covered some of these words in a previous post, and since then have collected some more examples to share with you.
        Usually these word pairs end up with different meanings, as for example…
        In the early fourteenth century we borrowed channel from French (which took it from Latin canalis).  It meant in French, as it was borrowed into English, “the bed of a flow of water.”  About a century later, we went back to French to borrow the same word again, this time in its more Latin form of canal, to refer to “tubular passages in the body”.  There is no reason we couldn’t have simply given the first word a second meaning with the growing science of anatomy, but presumably the scientists felt then, as they tend to do to this day, that to sound scientific, a word must sound Latinate.
        Another early fourteenth century word from French is reward (“to give something, especially as compensation”), which came specifically from an Old North French word.  In the mid-fourteenth century we borrowed again, from the then more current form of French, and got regard (“to consider”).  The French word from which we borrowed them both meant “to take notice of,” so you can see how they are related.
        Chase and catch are doublets, funny as that seems.  English borrowed them from variant forms of Old French cacier, “to hunt.”  Catching actually came first, borrowed in about 1200, while chasing was borrowed about a hundred years later.
        English borrowed the word freebooter from Dutch vrijbuiter in the 1560s, when buccaneers were common, especially in the West Indies, and piracy was pursued as both a viable career choice and foreign policy.  In the seventeenth century a book by Dutch freebooter John Oexmelin was popular enough to be translated into French and Spanish, and, in 1684, into English.  All these translations melded the Spanish version of the word (including an extra i) and the French version (including a gratuitous s), and gave us a new English word, filibuster.  (The verb for the legislative strategy doesn’t seem to have occurred before the end of the nineteenth century.)
        Also from Dutch, in the early fifteenth century, English borrowed bulwark, “a fortification or rampart.”  French borrowed the word, too, around the same time, but garbled it a little, as they had no w in their alphabet.  They also, apparently, tore down their bulwarks and laid out broad streets on the sites, but called these tree-lined promenades by their version of same word: boulevard.  English borrowed this French version, along with its new meaning, in 1769.
        In the late thirteenth century, English borrowed the Old French word cloque, as cloak, so called because it was bell-shaped (sort of).  A hundred years later, we borrowed the word again, but this time influenced by the Dutch version and giving us clock, which also, of course, had bells.  And in 1882 we borrowed the word again, only by this time the French form had altered in the intervening years, giving us cloche, a ball-jar (and by 1907 also a bell-shaped woman’s hat).
        Sometimes the word pairs are close synonyms, as…
        The word poor entered English in about 1200, from Old French, which had developed from the Latin root pauper.  And you can see where this is going.  English borrowed the Latin word directly in about 1510, where it was originally a legal term for someone who was not required to pay legal fees due to their impoverished state.  And that word had come into English in the early fifteenth century, from a related Old French word from the same Latin root.
        We really wouldn’t have needed more than one of those words, but when has English ever been satisfied with a single word when there are synonyms to be had?

        The thing to remember about these double-borrowings is that sometimes, as in the case of channel/canal, people deliberately choose another variant of a word we already have.  But often speakers are completely unaware of the relationship between two words with different meanings.  Of course knowing the relationship gains you nothing in terms of sense or usage, but it does gain you the satisfaction of knowing something nifty about the history of our language.

[Pictures: The freebooter Captain Jack Vincent, wood block print for the 1726 edition of History of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Charles Johnson (Image from Sea Thieves);
Florentine merchant in a cloak, wood block print from Habiti antichi et moderni by Cesae Vecelio, 1598 (Image from Biblioteca Casanatense);
Cloche hat styles, illustration from Sears Roebuck catalogue, 1924.]

September 25, 2018

Grabados en Madera

        In 1934 the work of seven of Costa Rica’s leading printmakers was collected in a portfolio  entitled Grabados en Madera (Woodcuts) by the Imprenta Nacional in San Jose.  I don’t know anything about the Costa Rican printmaking scene of the 1930s, so I have no idea whether these men were all working together, or were each doing their own thing, but certainly they all seem to share a very similar aesthetic.  Of course, it’s possible that the similarity reflects the publisher’s taste as much as anything, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that artists in a small area would be influencing each other, and would all be influenced by the same sorts of movements in the world.  Here are a few pieces from the collection.
        The first print here, by Manuel de la Cruz Gonzalez, is particularly appealing to me.  The man is wonderfully detailed, without really having any detail.  Somehow the few,
simple strokes manage to convey exactly the right set to the shoulders, leaning posture of the body, folds of the trousers, and planes of the face.  The black background and bold wheel are very dramatic, while the face is amazingly subtle.
        This church by Teodorico Quiros is particularly woody.  You can see the wood grain in the printing, and the slightly rough edges, and somehow the relatively thin lines of the border and background hills seem to accentuate that Quiros is carving on a flat plank.  I especially like the patterns on the steeple.
        Carlos Salazar Herrera did some prints with more detail than this one of people in the plaza, but I am always fascinated by how so much can be depicted with so little.  The people are very simplified, just white blobs and lines on a black background, but we have all we need to picture the scene.  I especially like the legs of the man standing on the right.  The person cross-legged beneath the tree in the background is a particularly impressive hieroglyphic, while the mule coming directly towards the viewer is also surprisingly successful.  (Surprising to me, anyway!  Salazar Herrera was probably perfectly confident about it.)
        This final scene of buildings, by Gilbert Laporte, is somewhat unusual for these prints, in having a white background.  It’s also got an interesting composition with so very much blank sky.  I especially like the details of the tower and dome, and the way the electric wires go right ahead and cut across the picture without embarrassment.

[Pictures: Afilador (Grinder), woodcut by Manuel de la Cruz Gonzalez, 1934;
Iglesia de Orosi (Church of Orosi), woodcut by Teodorico Quiros, 1934;
En La Plaza (In the Plaza), woodcut by Carlos Salazar Herrera, 1934;
Avenida Segunda (Second Avenue), woodcut by Gilbert Laporte, 1934
(All images from Annex Galleries).]

September 21, 2018

The Happy Little Elephant

        I’d like to share with you one of my early literary masterpieces, a short story entitled The Happy Little Elephant.  Here it is:
        Once upon a time there was a fuzzy little elephant, who had a gray trunk and tail and ears.  She was a Happy little elephant, she lived in the woods all by herself.  the end.

        I wrote and illustrated this epic in first grade (age 6), and must give major thanks to my mother for saving it so that I could have the data-driven benefit of this early sample of writing and illustration.  (Also so I could have the amusement.)  I’ve found that it’s helpful to share this story with third and fourth graders when I do classroom visits about writing.  I ask the children, “What is this story missing?”  It’s got setting: the forest.  It’s got character: the little elephant, about whom we actually learn quite a bit.  I could perhaps even argue that it’s got theme: the value of solitude.  But what it’s missing, as students can gleefully point out after a little reflection, is conflict.  Had I introduced a tropical storm, loneliness, hunger, poachers, or a lost left sock, I might have had the makings of a real-page-turner.  That is, if I’d managed to go on to a second page.  But without conflict, there is simply no plot.  To keep a plot going, you have to keep adding conflict.  No fictional elephant should ever be as content as mine until the final page.  (To be fair, my elephant isn’t content until the final page, either…)
        This probably reveals something about my own predilections: I suppose it’s true that to this day I love character and setting, but still don’t care for too much conflict!  But the lesson that any avid reader and developing writer soon learns is that a story can’t be about the perfect way things ought to be.  It can only be about getting there.  And that makes sense, because it so happens that our world is not yet perfect, but we can always be the kinds of characters in our own settings who work on getting there.

[Picture: Title page and illustration of The Happy Little Elephant by AEGN, 1976 or 7.]

September 18, 2018

What's New in the Studio - Philosophers

        Here is one of my newest pieces, based on Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Contemplation, but with some twists of my own.  First of all, I’ve acknowledged that both the people in the room are philosophers instead of assuming that only the man is actually relevant.  But more importantly, I’m imagining these as the sort of “philosophers” who may be making the Philosophers Stone, and are undoubtedly studying alchemy, sorcery, magical creatures, and so on.  The man is putting the finishing touches on his clockwork robot, while the woman is tending to the dragon egg in the fire.  A couple of salamanders are sporting in the fire, too, and above it flitter pyrallises.  In the warmth of the hearth bask a small dragon and a large cat.  I’ve also included a griffin, a jinni, and some sort of little imp or brownie, who clearly also has a scholarly bent.  He has his own tiny doorway to the room, and of course it’s natural to wonder what might be behind the odd door behind the man’s chair.  The dragon lair, perhaps?  A tunnel to an underground grotto?  The laboratory?  A brick oven for making really large pizzas?
        My initial temptation was to fill the picture with lots more creatures, too.  The more the merrier, I figured.  But then I decided if it was just cluttered up it would lose the charm of being a more “plausible” scenario.  I mean, dragon, griffin, and jinni?… Fine.  But dragon, griffin, jinni, unicorn, niffler, tarasque, and chupacabra?… Let’s not be ridiculous!
        My primary challenge was to try to capture the wonderful light of Rembrandt’s original, at which I did not succeed so well as I had hoped.  Still, I think it’s a lot of fun, and makes a nice place to start some excellent imaginings.

[Picture: The Philosophers at Home, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

September 14, 2018

Gearhart's Sky

        Here’s a pleasing wood block print by Frances Hammel Gearhart (USA, 1869-1958).  The RISD Museum, where I saw this piece, explains, “Frances Hammel Gearhart was first influenced by Japanese prints in about 1910, when she visited exhibitions in California that included the work of Hokusai…  She then began to teach herself to make woodblock prints, likely receiving some training from her sisters, who… had studied with artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow.  Dow promoted Japanese printmaking techniques and the use of water-based inks, and he encouraged his students to use these methods to record and interpret the American landscape.”  I like that Gearhart is at least somewhat self-taught.  Given that in Japan printmaking was taught by a long, strict, arduous apprenticeship with an emphasis on getting everything perfect according to tradition, it’s interesting that an artist like Gearhart could figure out for herself a technique that, while certainly not as technically perfect as a traditional Japanese print, is nevertheless very beautiful.  I also like the idea of adapting the Japanese style to capture the artist’s own native landscapes.  It looks to me like Gearhart used four blocks: sky, background, foreground inked with multiple colors, and black key block.  I especially love the sky, with its carved clouds and its painted texture.

[Picture: High Skies, polychrome woodblock print by Frances Hammel Gearhart, 1922 (Photo taken by AEGN at RISD Museum).]