January 14, 2020

10 Dragons, 1000 Posts

        This is my 1000th blog post.  (Do posts work like paper cranes, granting me a wish for peace now that I’ve reached 1000?  Well, I can always wish.)  To celebrate the blog I am sharing a selection of some of my favorite dragons that I’ve discovered in my research into bestiaries.  How about 10 dragons, celebrating 100 posts each?
        These images range from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and the first dragon, with its delightfully bird-like build and leafy tail, is the earliest of this bunch.  The second dragon has remarkably beautiful wings, and it should be noted that more than half of these dragons have feathered wings, rather than the leathery bat-like wings considered standard today.  It also has a remarkably beautiful background and borders.  (Remember that you can click on the pictures to see them bigger.)
        The next looks like it would be right at home in the 1930s instead of the 1430s, and the one beside it is actually just a marginal decoration rather than an illustration of any creature in particular.  I love that it’s breathing foliage instead of fire.  The fifth is a scitalis, which is a kind of serpent notable for its wondrous markings.  Presumably it should have been portrayed as a snake, sans legs or wings, but medieval bestiaries have a tendency to turn all sorts of serpents into dragons, and I’m not complaining.
        The yellow and orange dragon with the head like a puppy dog is part of the illustration of the peridexion tree of India.  This tree repels dragons, so that any doves that stay within its branches are safe from the predations of dragons.  It also sits upon a lovely background design.
        The next dragon, with proper batwings and interestingly webbed feet, is another marginal decoration, and the multicolored beast on gold is another scitalis.  I included the brown dragon below for its goofy grimace.  You can see at once that it was painted by the same artist who made the goofily grimacing malacomorph I featured four years ago.  In fact, if you search the manuscript (link in the credits) you will be amazed by how almost every creature on earth can be depicted with a goofy grimace.  Goofy grimaces must be the superpower of that particular fourteenth-century artist.
        And finally, an amphisbaena, a double-headed serpent.  Like the scitalises, this one has sprouted gratuitous legs and wings.  Speaking of legs, however, while the serpents may have more legs than expected, the dragons have fewer.  There are certainly some medieval dragons with four legs, but not all that many, and I haven’t included any in this celebratory collection.  The dragon/wyvern distinction  hadn’t been invented yet.
        Well, I hope you enjoy these dragons, which have certainly delighted me!  And I hope you've enjoyed this blog over the past 1000 posts.

[Pictures: Dragon, illustration from English Bestiary, 4th quarter of the 12th century (Image from the British Library);
Dragon, illumination from Franco-Flemish Bestiary, c 1270 (Image from J. Paul Getty Museum);
Dragon from Bestiarius Philippi Taeoniensis, 14th century (Image from Kongelige Bibliotek);
Marginal decoration from Hebrew Festival prayer book, Italian, 3rd quarter of the 15th century (Image from the British Library);
Scitalis, illumination from English Bestiary, 1226-1250 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);
Dragon and Peridexion Tree, illumination from French Bestiary, 13th century (Image from Bibliotheque Nationale de France);
Bas-de-page illustration of a dragon from the Queen Mary Psalter, 1310-1320 (Image from the British Library);
Scitalis, illumination from the Aberdeen Bestiary, c 1200 (Image from University of Aberdeen);
Dragon, illumination from Der naturen bloeme by van Maerlant, c 1350 (Image from National Library of the Netherlands);
Amphisbaena, illustration from Bestiary, 1236 - c 1250 (Image from the British Library).]

January 10, 2020

Cordel Literature - and Art

        I have just discovered the existence of the Literatura de Cordel, “string literature,” of the northeastern regions of Brazil.  It is a tradition of pamphlets sold by vendors that hang them from lines of string for display (hence the name).  The contents of the pamphlets are poems, usually of folkloric stories of romance, adventure, battles and bandits, and folk tales, but also sometimes about current events.  They are also usually illustrated with a wood block print on the cover.  They come out of the oral tradition and were often read aloud to illiterate audiences, sometimes performed by the authors themselves, who are considered to be in the tradition of troubadours.  The rise of literacy, as well as the internet, has made some shifts to these traditions, but it is still going strong.  When I first heard about this, I was fascinated to discover that there is an active and living version of the
chapbook tradition that was widespread in English-speaking countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but is now extinct there.  But for my interest here today, the important thing is the block prints for the covers.
        You can see that most of these prints, just like those of other chapbook traditions, are pretty crude, both in the carving and in the actual printing.  Most of them don’t have much in the way of perspective or full scenery, focussing on a single image with little or no background.  Many have uneven inking.  On the other hand, the peacock is quite detailed, and the guitarist stands in front of a cityscape with sophisticated angles and shadows.  Even the more simplistic images have their charm, however.  The man picking money from a tree is full of humor, and the goat really pleases
me with its boldness.  As all good covers should do, these tempt me to find out more about the story - although I know no Portuguese, and the internet has not always provided me with plausible translations.  The man in the tree, for example, appears to be dumping something on the jaguar below, but although I can see “adventures,” “ashtray” and “jaguar” in the title, I can’t figure out exactly how they fit together!
        The popularity of the genre is such that some of the artists (many of whom are also authors) can make a living at the craft, and a few have been embraced by Art World dealers and galleries.  I plan to feature some of that work in another post, but today I’ve limited myself to actual cordel literature covers.



[Pictures: cordel pamphlets (Image from Obvious);
A Cabra Misteriosa (The Mysterious Goat), wood block print by José Costa Leite (Image from British Museum);
Pé de Dinheiro do Banorte, wood block print by Jeronimo;
Rodolfo Coehlo Cavalcante, the King of Cordel, wood block print by MFS;
As Aventuras do Amarelo Joao Cinzeiro Papa Onça, wood block print unsigned;
O Romance do Pavao Misterioso (The Romance of the Mysterious Peacock), wood block print by ABA;
Libertaçao dos Reféns Americanos do Cativeiro do Iran (Liberation of the American Hostages from the Captivity of Iran), wood block print by Minelvino Francisco Silva (Images from HERE).]

January 7, 2020

Upcoming Bestiary Talk

        On Thursday I will be giving a presentation on “The Fantastic Bestiary,” which is my not-particularly-subtle pun with two meanings of fantastic: “really great” and “imaginative or fanciful.”  The thing that gets me so excited about medieval bestiaries is not just the wonderful creatures or just the quirky illustrations or just the strange “facts,” but the blending of so many different fascinating facets: art, science, mythology, morality, history, literature…  It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Interesting Things.  The title slide of my talk gives a sort of table of contents, and you can see that I’ll be trying to cover a range of all the good stuff that goes into medieval bestiaries, and then, of course, how I tried to take all that good stuff and adapt it into my own bestiary.
        In putting together the talk and slides I’ve really been going a little crazy, spending weeks scouring through about 80 on-line digitized manuscripts and incunabula, comparing creatures and contents, and selecting my favorite illustrative examples.  Obviously it’s been a labor of love, since otherwise it couldn’t possibly be worth the amount of time I’ve spent, and I’ve indulged many a fascinating tangent along the way.  I’m just astonished and grateful that there are so many digitized works available to me - 20 years ago this sort of research, encompassing rare works from about two dozen different libraries and museums, would have been extremely difficult and expensive for a scholar, and utterly unthinkable for an amateur like me.
        If you do happen to be local to the greater Boston area, and available during the day, the presentation will be at North Hill in Needham, Thursday, January 9, at 2:00pm.  If not, I do hope to be sharing at least a few highlights in coming blog posts.

[Pictures: Title Slide with three dragons;
A collection of griffins from 13 bestiaries, demonstrating a wide range of artistic talent (or lack thereof).]

January 3, 2020

Happy New Year!

        As we enter a new year and a new decade, gates and doorways seem like an appropriate metaphor, so I have three block prints of portals for you today.  Two are by artists I’ve featured before, and the third is new to me.  So, we start with this wood block print by Bruno da Osimo, showing one of the ancient gates through the Roman wall of the town of Osimo.  No, it’s not a coincidence that the artist and the town have the same name.  Bruno chose to call himself after his hometown, and recorded many images of his local landscapes, as well.  I love the variety of textures in this piece, and the way the path curves as it enters so that we get only a glimpse of further buildings beyond.  That's certainly how I feel entering a new year!







        This huge fancy doorway by Herbert Pullinger is an interesting blend of detailed areas and rough areas.  The ornate wrought iron filigree is incredibly detailed, but most of the people are mere silhouettes.  The words above the door are carefully rendered in both black and white according to the fall of light, but are completely blanked out in large areas.  Pullinger is capturing lighting so strong and harsh that shadows black out all detail and sunlight bleaches out all detail to white.
        Finally, a gate by Rebecca Hearle.  This one uses four colors of ink (plus paper), and the contrast here is between the careful details of the gate and the very simple background.  I get the impression that this is a portrait of a real gate somewhere, lovingly recorded.  Like Osimo, Hearle also celebrates scenes of her own home, in her case the Wash and Fens of East Anglia.
        As you step through into this next decade, I wish you joy wherever you can find it, strength whenever you need it, and hope to guide the way.

[Pictures: Porta Musone, wood block print by Bruno da Osima, 1940s;
The Iron Gates, wood engraving by Herbert Pullinger, 1957 (Image from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts);
Fenland Gate, lino block print by Rebecca Hearle (Image from her web site).]

December 31, 2019

Word of the Month - Therianthrope

        Therianthropic - adj. being partly animal and partly human in form; of or pertaining to deities conceived or represented in such form (from Greek “wild beast” + “human”).
        This adjectival form, interestingly, seems to be a more standard dictionary word than the noun therianthrope, and I suspect that the noun may be a back-formation.  It has also acquired a more diffuse range of meanings, but let’s start with the basics.  The ancient Egyptian gods, with their human bodies and animal heads, are representatives of that most basic definition.  There are also plenty of examples in classical Greek mythology, including fauns, satyrs, centaurs, harpies, and the minotaur.  The personage below is a cyanocephalus, or dog-headed humanoid, from classical and medieval tales of distant lands.
        Therianthropy is also defined as shape-shifting: not just existing with both human and animal features, but switching entirely between wholly human and wholly animal forms.  Werewolves are the most obvious example, in addition to selkies and bird maidens, and there are shapeshifters in mythologies around the world.  A recently-added definition of therianthrope is a person who identifies, spiritually or psychologically, as a non-human animal.  Sticking with the original definition, however, therianthropic characters abound in the religions and folklores of people around the world, from hybrid monsters such as mermaids, to shapeshifting spirits such as kitsune, to animals that take human form in order to marry humans and found races and clans, to all manner of gods and demons.  Clearly this is a topic we humans find rich and fascinating.  But when did we first start telling stories of therianthropes?
        I encountered the word in a recent article about the discovery of Indonesian cave paintings at least 43,900 years old, “the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”  (The famous scenes on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France are probably only about 17,000 years old.)  The scene in the Sulawesi cave appears to be a group of eight figures hunting wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes, and according to the archaeologists, some of those figures are therianthropes.  I confess they’re not detailed enough for me to feel confident of the identification of what I’m looking at, but I’ll take the archaeologists’ word for it.  One of them, Adam Brumm, said, “We can point to these enigmatic images of therianthropes as the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings.”  Of course we have no idea what stories those ancient artists were telling or what the various figures meant to them, but it does seem safe to assume that their view of the world was more than merely literal, which reinforces just how basic and vital a part of the human identity it is to picture and share ideas of things that are beyond material experience.

[Pictures: Merman and Harpy, wood block prints from Ortus sanitatis by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Images from Boston Public Library);
Cyanocephalis, wood block print from Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) by Hartmann Schedel, 1493 (Image from Universiteit Utrecht);
Bird-billed humanoid? cave painting from Sulawesi, Indonesia, c. 42000 BCE (Image from New York Times).]

December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas!

        This relief print of the birth of Jesus comes from one of the earliest books to combine woodcut illustrations with moveable type, the Biblia pauperum of 1462-3.  It is hand colored, and it amuses me that Mary’s halo is green.  Yellow wouldn’t have shown up, but I’d have thought they could leave it unpainted and it would look bright against the stable.
        The Christmas greeting from Gustave Baumann is very different: secular rather than religious, freestanding rather than part of a book, colored with separate blocks rather than painted…  However, it too has an interesting twist to its printing.  It is cut from linoleum blocks “transferred
and printed from stone,” which I interpret as a sort of offset lithography.  I don’t know why this seemingly needlessly complicated method was used, but at least it retains the look of the linoleum cuts.  I always love the look of lighted windows at dusk.
        For those who celebrate Christmas, may it be full of joy!


[Pictures: Nativity, hand-colored woodcut from Biblia pauperum published by Albrecht Pfister, c 1462-1463 (Image from Bavarian State Library);
Fröhliche Weihnachten, color linocut transferred to and printed from stone, 1905 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

December 21, 2019

Happy Hanukkah!

        In honor of Hanukkah, today’s wood block prints depict menorahs.  Of course, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that these all have 7 branches, which makes them temple menorahs, instead of the 8+1 branches of a Hanukkah menorah (aka hanukkiah).  The hanukkiah’s extra branches came about after the fall of the Second Temple in the first century CE, when people were prohibited from having replicas of the sacred 7-branched menorah outside the temple, so they made a variant for use in their homes.  There don’t seem to be any older depictions of these household candelabra because Hanukkah wasn’t an important holiday anyway.  So all the block prints I’ve found are illustrating the important stuff, and that’s the temple’s 7-branched version.
        This first wood block print illustrates a commentary from 1609, and I like the way all the parts are labelled.  I don’t know what the labels say, but I think it’s interesting that the labels are repeated on all the parts, not just one
of each.  The base has a particularly attractive design, nicely carved with lines of shading.
        Next is a very detailed illustration of the temple treasures from a Catholic Bible of 1494.  I do like the way the dark background allows the menorah’s flames to look bright.  This menorah’s design is very contemporary to its time.  I also find the elaborate border very interesting in its choice of details.  Frog, moth, grasshopper… not the decorative choices I would have expected.
        The third illustration amuses me because it makes the menorah look about two stories tall.  I mean, I know the little people are in the background, but they’re not that far away.  This is a menorah worthy of modern public holiday decor, perhaps in Times Square!  However, it isn’t as fancy as some of the others.  The base is lovely, but the arms are quite simple.
        And finally, something from the twentieth century.  If these children are celebrating at home, then perhaps their menorah should have nine arms, but setting that aside, there are two candles lit.  I wonder whether artist Irving Amen originally had another flame or two before extinguishing them by carving them away!  The background is particularly interesting, with its printed wood grain.
That background block had some areas carved out to be the base of the children, but also to leave the table’s placemat paper-colored.
        There are plenty of lights in these wood block prints, and I hope they bring special joy to anyone celebrating Hanukkah in the next week, and a bit of extra light to all at this darkest time of year.

[Pictures: Menorah, wood block print from Yosef Da’at by Joseph ben Issacher Baer, 1609 (Image from Sotheby’s);
Illustration of temple goods, wood block print from Catholic Bible printed by Johann Dietenberger, c 1494 (Image from National Library of Austria);
Menorah, wood block print by Bernhard Salomon from Wol gerissnen und geschnidten Figuren ausz der Bibel, 1564, originally for 1553 book (Image from e-rara Zentralbibliothek Zürich);
Sabbath Lights, woodcut print by Irving Amen, mid-twentieth century (Image from Worth Point).]

December 18, 2019

Jealousy as Fear

        As was her wont, Ursula K. LeGuin here expresses perfectly something that I had obscurely glimpsed in myself but not quite put my finger on until reading her sharp and lucid explanation.  It needs no further comment.

        Jealousy sticks its nasty yellow-green snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, and Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.
        The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately, it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.

[Picture: The Horse and the Ass, wood engraving by Boris Artzybasheff, from Aesop’s Fables, 1933;
Quotation from essay “About Anger,” from No Time to Spare by LeGuin, 2017.]

December 13, 2019

Big Bold Cats by Artzybasheff


      Boris Artzybasheff (Russia/USA, 1899-1965) was an illustrator and graphic designer, and I recently came across a couple of books which he illustrated with wood engravings.  Today I have for you some of his depictions of Aesop’s fables, and more specifically, the ones I’ve chosen all happen to depict big cats.  Although wood engravings are usually used for more highly detailed images with fine texture everywhere, Artzybasheff’s are very bold, with lots of solid black and white.  However, you can see very fine cross-hatching in some places, such as this tiger’s face, and lots of quite thin lines.
        You can see that Artzybasheff gives his pictures lots of movement.  He uses boldly curving shapes, emanating lines of light, and dramatic angles to give this sense of animation.  Each of these pieces has a strong diagonal.  This double piece is especially clever for another reason, as well.  It’s actually the same block printed in two different orientations, so that either cat can be on top in the battle.  They make a sort of
yin-yang, although one in which the balance is violent rather than peaceful.  (For some time I have been mulling a piece that could be viewed in either direction, but I can’t figure out how that plays out in something framed and hung on the wall.  It’s easier to show both perspectives at once, as Artzybasheff has done on the page in this book.)
        Another common factor among all these pieces is the way Artzybasheff captures emotional attitudes, from the ferocity of the first tiger to this leopard’s wonderful arrogance, to the quizzical expression of the lion below.  The facial expressions are certainly a large part of it, with their various eyebrows and mouths, but Artzybasheff also makes masterful use of those same techniques of dynamic postures and lines of light and dark to emphasize the emotion.  The leopard’s attitude couldn’t be clearer - but the fox is quite mysterious.  What is he thinking, with his mask-like face and statue-like posture?
        Note, too, how Artzybasheff uses the background foliage to highlight and emphasize the movement of his main characters.  Leaves flicker behind the fierce tiger like black flame or smoke; they bow down below the regal leopard and form a canopy above his head.  Behind the lion and mouse, they offer wonderful texture and visual interest, and I love their whimsical shape and bark pattern - but I think it’s
not too much of a stretch to say that they are in keeping with the ambiguity of the lion’s response to the mouse.  What will happen next?

[Pictures: The Tiger and the Bulls, wood engraving by Boris Artzybasheff;
The Lion, the Tiger, and the Fox, wood engraving by Artzybasheff;
The Leopard and the Fox, wood engraving by Artzybasheff;
The Lion and the Mouse, wood engraving by Artzybasheff, all from Aesop’s Fables by Artzybasheff, 1933).]