October 29, 2010

Words of the Month - Things That Go Bump In the Night

        Hallowe'en is nearly upon us, and it's time you were prepared for some of the more unusual words that might haunt you at this time of spirits and spooks.  We all know about witches, zombies, werewolves and ghosts, but what would you do if you were out trick-or-treating and encountered an ouphe?  Basic self-preservation requires that you learn these words before the sun goes down on October 31.

ouphe - imp, goblin, elf
     You'll find these troublemakers in England.  The word first appeared in Shakespeare (1623) and, funnily enough, may simply be a typographical error for oaph, as in oaf.  It turns out that oaf and elf come from the same root, the connection being that children with mental or physical abnormalities were said to be changelings.  Thus a person who was thought to be stupid or slow was elfish.  As for true goblin ouphes, they can be pronounced more like oaf, or more like oof.  I prefer the latter, but however you pronounce their name, watch out for their mischief.

rakshasa - an evil humanoid creature that feeds on human flesh and spoiled food, and is a shapechanger, illusionist, and magician
     Rakshasas are a terrible danger to travellers in India.  According to Hinduism, Rakshasas may have been particularly evil humans in former lives, and according to Buddhism they are demons of the army that fought Buddha, but in either case they're known to disturb sacrifices, desecrate graves, dine on human travellers, and carry off heroes' wives.  They have long sharp teeth and venomous fingernails, and are said to have as many as ten heads.  If you wish to defeat one, you'll need to be a hero.

dybbuk - the dislocated soul of a dead person, which can possess a living person
     The danger of dybbuks is worst in Eastern Europe.  According to Jewish folklore a dybbuk often uses the possessed person to help it finish a task it was unable to do before death.  Supposedly a dybbuk can sometimes be benevolent, but I don't think I want to risk getting a malicious one.

tokoloshe - a creature variously believed to be a zombie, a familiar, a gremlin, or a demon.  It's created by a shaman in order to wreak revenge on the shaman's enemies.
     It is in southern Africa that you need to watch out for tokoloshes.  The word comes from Zulu and is spelled a variety of ways, including Tikoloshe.  They are small, hairy, and may have holes in their skulls or gouged-out eyes, but they're usually invisible to adults, due to a pebble they carry in their mouths.  They're thought to frighten children, rape women, steal things, and cause illness and death.  But the most evil thing about them is that real people in Africa are sometimes attacked or murdered out of fear of witchcraft and tokoloshes.

far darrig - a solitary Irish fairy who wears a red coat and cap and delights in playing pranks on people - especially gruesome tricks
     This word is an Anglicization of the Irish fear dearg, meaning Red Man.  According to Gil Hamper, "Mortal terror amuses the far darrig. Occasionally, he invites a mortal to enter a lonely bog hut, then he orders him to make dinner out of a hag skewered on a spit. The man usually faints. When he recovers, he finds himself alone with the sound of laughter filling the air, but coming from no distinguishable source. It is advisable to say 'Na dean maggadh fum'-- do not mock me', when you encounter a far darrig, that way you cannot be used in one of his macabre games. Unfortunately, he plans his tricks so well that a mortal is snared long before he realizes the need to protest."
He can also give evil dreams.

baku - a Japanese creature that devours dreams and nightmares
     Traditionally the baku was depicted as sort of an elephant-headed tiger.  More recent versions often show the baku looking like a tapir.  Now that anime and manga have become popular in the West, various versions of the baku can be seen here, including baku-based Pokémon.  Whatever its appearance, if the far darrig or any other Hallowe'en stuff is giving you nightmares, the baku is the creature for you.

[Pictures: Rakshasa, photo by Manohara Upadhya;
Baku, wood block print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), (posted by Peregrine Fisher).]

October 26, 2010

Hans Holbein's Totentanz

Death takes the Duke in the very act of turning
away from the pleas of a poor woman and child.

        Totentanz is German for Dance of Death, also sometimes referred to in English by the French name Danse Macabre.  The Dance of Death is an allegory that arose in the early fifteenth century to remind people that Death comes for everyone.  It usually shows Death, generally personified as a skeleton, summoning people of all different ages and stations of life.  The idea was to admonish people (in pictures, as most were illiterate) not to set store by the glories of earthly life, for death unites us all.
        If this seems a bit morbid in our modern era, keep in mind that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe were one long parade of famine, warfare, and plague, not to mention the high mortality rates of mothers and infants and, well, everybody, even under "normal" circumstances.  Death was indeed an ever-present shadow, and the Dance of Death images combined both responses to that threat: the religious fervor and the desire to make merry as long as one still could.  We'll all be summoned by Death sooner or later, but we may as well go out dancing.
The Nun is in her rich apartment listening to the serenade
of her lover... when Death extinguishes her candles.
        Hans Holbein the Younger
(c. 1498 - 1543) happens to be my favorite portrait painter of all time, but I hadn't been familiar with his work as a woodblock designer.  He made his Totentanz woodcut designs while living in Basel in the 1520's before he had become famous for his portraiture.  The Reformation reached Basel around the same time, and Holbein was doing commissions for Catholics, Lutherans, and Humanists, mostly doing murals and woodcut designs.  (Remember that Holbein did not carve the wood blocks.  That was done by Hans Lützelburger, the finest Form-schneider of his day.   See here for a description of the woodblock printing process of the time.)  Holbein designed 41 wood blocks in the series.  In 1545 another twelve images were added by someone else, after Lützelburger had died and Holbein was living in England.
Is it a coincidence that Death seem so
cheerful about assisting the doctor in
his treatment of the patient?
        Holbein's Dance of Death wasn't first published until 1538, possibly because of disapproval of its content - it was pretty seditious in some ways, highlighting the corruption of pope, emperor, and magistrate, among others.  Despite or because of this, it was popular enough to change the Dance of Death genre.  For example, before Holbein it had been common to depict Death and all the people in one large scene dancing together (perhaps pointing more directly to the Black Death and other episodes where many people were struck down at once.)  Holbein instead showed separate vignettes of each person being summoned in his or her own daily environment.  Sometimes Death is actually the one killing the victim, not just notifying him that his time has come, as had been the standard before.  Holbein's Death is often quite mischievous, as for example stealing the rich man's money, or trying to draw the astrologer's attention away from the heavenly spheres and toward contemplation of a skull instead.  
As Death leads away the Old Woman, perhaps he's
finally showing a more lovable side, helping her
along with music and dancing.
        Speaking of skulls, I can't help thinking that Holbein might have felt a special affection for his Death figures, since Hohlbein is German for "hollow bone," which could be a riddling term for "skull."
        At this time of year people in my neighborhood blithely decorate their houses with skeletons, skulls, and Grim Reapers, thinking of it as fun and festive.  It occurs to me that perhaps we should reconsider our condescension toward people in what we like to call Dark Ages and ignorant times -- they apparently had a much more sophisticated and multi-faceted view of images of Death.  What we glance at and dismiss as cute holiday decor they would perceive as moral lesson, social commentary, and humor, simultaneously knowing the very real fear of Death and acknowledging what it says about life.
        If you want to see all of Holbein's Totentanz images you can find them at various websites.  Try this one, or the images at Wikimedia Commons, (where I got the ones I've shown here.  Many thanks!)

[Pictures: The Duke, The Nun, The Doctor, The Old Woman, wood block prints designed by Hans Holbein, c. 1526, and carved by Hans Lützelburger before 1538.]

October 22, 2010

The Listeners

     Walter de la Mare's poem "The Listeners" was one of the first longer poems I memorized, having fallen in love with its evocative and mysterious images.  De la Mare (1873-1956) was known for many rather mysterious, romantic, and supernatural stories and poems for children and adults, but "The Listeners" (first published in 1912) is his most-anthologized.
        It occurred to me that it would be fun to try illustrating it, because I thought the lighting - all dark but for the moonlight - would be a real challenge.  I sketched out all my outlines without having decided on exactly which areas would be dark and which would be light.  I began carving before making many decisions, which can be a pretty dangerous practice, since the way an area gets carved will differ depending on whether the adjoining space is dark or light.  Still, I think it turned out pretty well.  I couldn't manage the dramatic lighting I had hoped for on the Traveller, and I'm not happy with the smaller tree in the center.  On the other hand, I really like the moonlit leaves of the larger tree.  At any rate, without further ado, one of my favorite poems:

        The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,   
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses   
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,   
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;   
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;   
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,   
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners   
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight   
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,   
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken   
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,   
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,   
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even   
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,   
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,   
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house   
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,   
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,   
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

[Picture: The Listeners, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010.]

October 19, 2010

Portrait of an Open Studio Weekend

     I spent this past weekend sitting at a table carving, surrounded by my wares, while I waited for my adoring public to purchase armloads of art and books for everyone they knew.  If the mini-trend of those two days is any indication, the economy is improving rapidly, because Saturday was a desolate consumer wasteland, while Sunday brought pretty good sales.  (I'm enough of a puritan not to blame people for deciding that my art is a luxury they can do without when they have to conserve their money.  But I certainly like it better when everyone's feeling flush!)
(All my racks of cards and matted prints are
out of the picture to my right.)
        So here's how a typical Open Studio experience goes for me:  First of all, I'm never actually in my studio.  I always choose to show in group space, because it's more interesting to be with other artists, more visitors come by, my studio is out of the way and nothing to look at anyway (consisting, as it does, of an ordinary room in my house), and my carving is portable enough that I can demonstrate it anywhere.  So, there are weeks of preparation, and days of packing, but things really begin when I set up on Friday.  That can take an hour or three, depending on what sort of hanging system I get to use, how far I have to haul each load from the car to my location, and so on.  (This weekend there was no hanging system at all, because I had no wall space to use - something I didn't discover until two days before.  Yikes!  A hastily devised combination of easels and peg board from the basement saved the day.)  On Saturday I pick up balloons on the way and arrive about half an hour early for last-minute set up.  Then I sit down and begin to carve the block I've prepared.  (This weekend I worked on "The Listeners," which I'll post on Friday.)
        Visitors begin to trickle in.  I smile and answer questions.  I show people how I carve and explain the block printing process.  I let people try a little carving themselves, on a scrap piece of rubber.  Kids especially love that, but so do all those adults who had to do linoleum printing once back in high school.  Sometimes, of course, people buy things, after which I resume my carving.  Whenever things are busy and I'm talking with a lot of people I get warm, and then whenever there's no one around and I sit back down quietly I get cold, and so it goes…
        At the end of the day I come home and spend the evening replacing whatever sold.  I mat up additional prints, package note cards, print, cut, and assemble more packets of book plates, and so on.  The beauty of this system is that if I have to work too hard that night, it's only because my sales were good.  And if sales were slow at least I have the consolation of getting a bit more time to relax in the evening.  If there's really a lot of work to do I finish it up on Sunday morning before Friends Meeting.  (I'm also not proud to admit that this weekend I spent a truly stupid amount of time Sunday morning trying to come up with something to wear that would balance looking nice with being able to take down and pack up a show, and being a bit autumnally chilly outside with being a bit overheated whenever I get talking to people.)
        Usually I either pack a lunch or D supportively brings me something around lunch time.  (This Sunday D thought the whole family could eat lunch together at a small restaurant near my show location.  Alas, it took so long before we were seated that I had to dash off to my post as soon as I'd placed my order.  But my loyal family came to visit me and bring me my lunch when they were finished.)  When P and T visit me, they inspect my display, inquire after sales, carve a few lines on my scrap rubber block, admire their favorite items, and are ready to move on.  Once they're gone I get back to work on the carving…  And so the second day goes much as the first (albeit with better sales on this particular weekend.)
        Around 3:30 I finished carving my block.  I used an ink pad to ink it up and print a rough impression on scrap paper, then I carved a bit more, adding more texture and detail in places, fixing up a few rough areas.  But soon I was about as finished as I could get before washing and inking it properly, and that's the point when I get bored.  Normally I try to have a second block in reserve so that I never run out of carving, but this time… well, I spent so much time getting dressed in the morning that I didn't have a chance to finish getting my second block ready.  I said I wasn't proud of it.
        At 5:00 the show closes.  All the artists start packing up.  (One of the others commented on how I must be an old hand because my set-up and take-down were so efficient.  Another of the artists really is a professional and will be on to her next show next weekend.)  I enjoy the camaraderie of the range of artists, new and old, all different media, even when we don't talk very much.  Usually we're all pretty tired.  I haul my loads out to the car (I think it took seven trips this time), drive home, and unload everything into the house.  Then D makes dinner magically appear (pizza.  I am a very lucky non-starving artist!)  I make my report to the family on sales and news, and leave the bookkeeping and all the other tasks for the next day.  And that's another show done for the year… except that this year I have my next show coming up in just three weeks, so I won't be resting on my shopworn laurels just yet.

[Pictures: me at the show, photo by DN;
carved block (The Listeners, stained with green stamp pad ink), photo by AEGN.]

October 15, 2010

Fantasy Tales of Frank R. Stockton

        I recently finished reading The Storyteller's Pack: A Frank R. Stockton Reader, and Ting-a-Ling.  I read them because I had seen Stockton mentioned as one of the first fantasy writers in the US, and I was curious.  Stockton was born in 1834, and worked as a wood engraver before switching over to writing full time.  (See?  Block printing and writing fantasy make a natural combination!)  Actually, Stockton wrote a variety of gently humorous works, not just fantasy.  Some were intended for children, some for adults; some were adventure, some rather philosophical, some satirical.  His most famous work, or at least the only one that I had previously known, was that staple of the high school short story unit "The Lady, or the Tiger?"  That's the one about the young man who's sentenced to choose between two doors, behind one of which is a lethal tiger, and behind the other of which is a woman he must marry.  I never particularly liked the story, partly because of its gimmicky non-ending, which I feel is just laziness on the part of the author, whose job it is to tell the story, and partly because, of course, I like happy endings, and this story would be hard-pressed to have one.  At any rate, I was unfamiliar with any of Stockton's other work, and my library didn't have much.  However, a lot of his work is available on Project Gutenberg.  I was pleased to find that I enjoyed a number of Stockton's tales.  Here are my favorites.
        "The Queen's Museum" - in which an entire populace ends up in jail for the crime of failing to be interested in the museum their Queen has so single-mindedly filled with her own favorite subject.  Luckily, with the help of a Stranger, a Hermit's Pupil, and a Band of Robbers, the museum can be emptied of its boring contents and refilled with more interesting stuff so that the Queen's subjects can finally be free.
        "Prince Hassak's March" - in which the high-and-mighty Prince Hassak, on his way to a neighboring country,  endures delays, imprisonment, arithmetic, jail-breaking, enforced nucleus-ship, silly outfits, and eventual Lessons Learned.  The under-quota jailer who assigns each of his guests a crime, and the irrepressible Jolly-cum-pop are particularly amusing.
        "The Banished King" - in which the King sets out to discover why his country is in such bad shape, but, due to the unfortunate failure of cell phones to have been invented yet, is forced to have a continuous line of messengers strung out behind him at intervals of 100 yards, so that no matter how far he travels from his palace, he can always send messages to the Queen simply by shouting down the line.  I particularly enjoy how he has to converse with the helpful sphinx without ever actually answering her directly, because everyone knows that people always get into trouble if they try to answer a sphinx's questions.
        "The Philopena" - in which a Prince and Princess find their childhood playmates, with a little help from an Inquisitive Dwarf, a Gryphoness, a Water Sprite, an Absolute Fool, and a ship full of Amazons.
        Ting-a-Ling - Stockton's first book, composed of 4 more-or-less unconnected fairy tales, all at least mentioning the fairy named Ting-a-ling.  Stockton is obviously influenced by Arabian Nights in the vaguely Middle Eastern setting and the stock of royalty, slaves, magicians, and people rushing around waving scimitars.  The opening story is quite gruesome in the matter of decapitations and other untimely ends, although Stockton seems confident that neither he nor any tender readers will be upset by this sort of inconvenience.  The stories are a slightly odd mix of standard fairy tale conventions, understated satire, slapstick humor, subtle social commentary, the aforementioned comic violence, and charming invention.  I wasn't utterly thrilled by the book, but there were sufficient moments of humor and clever twists that I found it enjoyable, on the whole.

        At his worst, Stockton's nineteenth century narration is measured and methodical to the point of plodding, and he presents as soul-testing dilemmas troubles that seem to me easily surmountable.  At his best, however, his whimsical imaginings have a gentle matter-of-factness, and he satirizes human foibles such as arrogance and selfishness with a wry understanding.  His characters and creatures always seem perfectly reasonable, even in the midst of the silliest folly, and he makes even the most outrageous of plots seem delightfully civilized.  All of his fantasy tales were interesting to me from a historical perspective - these were the stories that L. Frank Baum would have read with his children - but the best are definitely worth reading for their own sake.  With the magic of Project Gutenberg, I plan to read more of Stockton's fairy tales.

[Picture: title page of Ting-A-Ling, by Edmund Birckhead Bensell, 1916.]

October 12, 2010

Cornell's "Fantastic in Art" Archive

        In some of my poking around on-line looking for pictures of something-or-other fantasy-related, I came across this web site put together by the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections.  Check it out.
        There's some interesting stuff here, and I've used it as a resource a couple of times.  It doesn't have good samples of most of my favorite fantasy creatures, I'm sorry to say, and I happen not to be particularly interested in stuff illustrating satanism and insanity, but I really like the Fantastic Space category, as well as what the Bestiary does have.  The images all come from Cornell's rare books and manuscripts, so it makes no claim to be historically comprehensive or anything like that.  What it does do is make available for viewing sources that otherwise would be hidden away in the archives where we'd never get to see them.  I'm always in favor of that!
        In addition to the pictures, there are short essays introducing the various categories in the collection: Angels & Demons, the Marvelous, the Grotesque, etc.  Under "About this Site" there's an explanation of what sorts of stuff were chosen and how the site was envisioned, with some definition of "fantastic."
        At any rate, it seemed as if impending Hallowe'en was a good season in which to draw attention to this collection of strange, spooky, magical, and mysterious images.
        (As for these sample images I've chosen, notice how the wood engraving at the top has a different look from the metal engraving in the middle.  Remember that wood engravings are relief prints while metal engravings are intaglio...  And then there's this strange squid-bishop thing, which is just silly.)

[Pictures: Letter G with triple-headed dragon, wood engraving from La Vie Execrable de  Guillemette Babin, Sorciere by Maurice Garçon, 1926;
   Labyrinthine dungeon, metal engraving by Piranesi, 1750;
   Merman reminiscent of the clergy, wood block print from Icones Animalium, 1560.]

October 8, 2010

A Short History of Dragon Lore

As Recounted by a Direct Descendant of a Genuine Dragon-Slayer

        Yes, due modesty cannot prevent my smugness at being able to claim with utter sincerity that I, Anne Nydam, am descended from the famous dragon-slayer Guifredo the Hairy of Barcelona.  It is a source of great satisfaction which, now that I think about it, I should probably endeavor to remember whenever I am Faced by Adversity.  (Alas, dragon-slaying is probably not a skill that translates particularly well to dealing with melodramatic eight-year-olds, which is the primary source of Adversity I face.  Still, it’s worth a shot.)  Anyway, more on Old Granddad Guifredo later.  I did a little research into the history of dragon lore, and while I make no claims to comprehensiveness, I did find a few threads that I thought were interesting.
        A common explanation for the origin of dragons in folklore is the basic human need for a symbol of the epic struggle between good and evil, and between humanity and the uncontrollable forces of nature.  The earliest dragon-like monsters (at least that left records in art and literature) seem to have been water spirits or water demons in Egypt and Babylonia.  Set, the enemy of Osiris in Egypt, and Tiamat in Babylon are examples of watery monsters that try to overset the universe.  (The Biblical image of Satan as a serpent or dragon dates from after the Babylonian captivity, so that’s probably where the writers of the Old Testament got the idea.)  Over the centuries, mythologies of “dragons” appear to the east in India and China as well as north.  These sorts of dragons often have elements of crocodiles or snakes, bird claws, and fish scales, but are really not proper dragons fit for modern fantasy.  Sometimes they’re too humanoid, sometimes too bestial; often they’re more what we might now call chimeras, being crazy hybrids of assorted creatures.
The “eastern dragons” continued their association with water spirits and developed into more divine creatures.  Eastern dragons get their looks from a selection of nine animals (although exactly which nine animals varies according to whom you consult.)  The Wikipedia article on Chinese dragons quotes the Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu (c. 220 CE) as saying, “The people paint the dragon's shape with a horse's head and a snake's tail….as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, ), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called [chimu] (尺木). If a dragon has no [chimu], he cannot ascend to the sky.”  My personal favorite is the belly of the clam, since I didn’t even know clams had bellies.  Or maybe they're nothing but belly.  Anyway, while essentially auspicious, eastern dragons are not without their dangers.  They can cause terrible disasters, particularly floods and storms, through negligence or through vengeance if they’re angered or improperly propitiated.  Sometimes they have to be scared away in order to save the sun from eclipse, or threatened with retaliation in order to convince them to end a drought or stop a flood.
  European culture, of course, always has to start with the Greeks.  One could probably make a decent defense of the theory that the Greeks used monsters in their myths as stand-ins for other cultures’ gods that could be defeated by humans, thus proving the superiority of humanism and the humanoid Greek gods.  (There’s a splendid thesis idea for someone.  You’re welcome!)  Some of those monsters in Greek myths have been called dragons, and some have sufficient draconic traits to qualify, but they’re still a pretty unsatisfactory lot by current conceptions of what a dragon should be.
        Among the better examples from Greece is Cadmus founding Thebes with the help of warriors that sprouted from the teeth of the dragon he slew.  In the north there’s Fafnir killing his brother for the treasure of the “Ring Cycle” and transforming into a dragon in order to guard his loot.  There’s the less familiar final chapter of Beowulf’s life in which he fights a dragon.  (By this time Beowulf is old and his kinsman Wiglaf has to join in to help him slay the dragon.  They succeed, but Beowulf eventually dies of his wounds.)  All these are narrowing in on what a “western dragon” should be.
        Christianity brought the next stage of development.  The Church seized on the idea of the dragon as a representation of Satan, sin, heresy, and evil, and we start to see all our favorite saints vanquishing them.  I give here two of my favorite examplars.
        The first is the story of my great-great-and-then-some-grandfather Guifredo the Hairy of Barcelona, who while not technically a saint, still represents the type of myth.  My mother, also not technically a saint, but who has a PhD in history and a hobby of genealogy, recounts the story thus:
        “There is a late fourteenth-century carving on the left side of the portal of Sant Iu in the Barcelona cathedral, showing a hairy man in a pair of pants armed with a cudgel fighting a dragon.  The companion carving shows a man in contemporary armor and a sword fighting a dragon.  The reference would have been obvious to a citizen of Barcelona of the middle ages.  Guifredo the Hairy [Guifre el Pelos], founder of the nation, is compared to Saint George.  The legend buttressing this comparison tells of an early Muslim effort at biological warfare.  It seems they were unable to defeat the count of Barcelona so they sent an expedition to Africa to catch a young dragon.  The hunters snared one, tied it up, and sent it to Cataloña.  There it was taken to a cave near the mouth of the Llobregat River, and set loose.  The dragon settled comfortably into its new home (still called Cova del Drac, the Dragon’s Cave), eating sheep and other animals.  As it grew bigger it satisfied its hunger with peasants and the occasional knight.  Eventually Guifredo (or his father, some versions provide his father with the same name) came to the rescue.  He tore a big branch off an oak tree and approached the beast.  The dragon grabbed the branch, tore it in two, and brandished a piece in each front leg.  Undeterred, Guifredo pierced the monster again and again with his lance.  Eventually it died.  The locals celebrated by skinning it.  The dragon skin was stuffed with straw and brought out to parade on feast days.”  Oh yes sirree, I'm mighty proud to have that dragon-slaying blood in my veins!
        But perhaps my favorite saint vs dragon story is one with a delightfully different flavor, given here by Ernest Ingersoll in Dragons and Dragon Lore (1928.)
         “While [Saint] Martha was preaching Christianity to the pagan people at Arles an urgent message was sent to her from Tarascon, reciting that an awful dragon called the Tarasque, whose lair was in the neighbouring desert of Crau, was killing the Tarasconais, and they begged her to come and destroy it.  She gladly complied, and going to his cave was able, by sheer force of lovingness (and a sprinkler of holy water), to subdue and regenerate the ravaging Tarasque, so that he meekly followed her into the midst of the astonished populace.  ‘Along the bright ways of the city,’ as the legend goes, ‘the procession moved: a crowd of excited people, a beautiful woman with the light playing round her head, leading by a silken cord a reformed monster who ambles after her as quietly as if he were a pet lamb. . . . And never again did he ravage the country or carry off so much as a single babe after Ste. Marthe had pointed out to him, with her usual sweet reasonableness, how wrong-headed and how essentially immoral such conduct had been.’”
        And perhaps that brings us to a truly modern fantasy concept of the dragon as a creature that, while endowed with awesome physical powers, is also capable of sentience and reason.

[Pictures: Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, c 575 BCE, (photo by Hahaha);
    Nine Dragon Wall, Beihai Park, c 1756, (photo by Shizhao);
    My Old Granddad Guifredo, Barcelona Cathedral, 13th-15th centuries, (photo by SallyM);
    Saint Marthe and the Tarasque, detail from a French illuminated manuscript, 15th century, (photo by Teofilo).]

October 5, 2010

The Price of Art

        Putting a price on art is such a complicated question that there are no complete answers.  However, as I gear up for a sale in ten days, I thought it might be interesting to bring up a few of the issues I think about, and lay them out for people to consider.
        First of all, there's the basic capitalist idea of supply and demand.  One could argue that the right price for any piece of art is "as much as the market will bear."  This allows some pieces of art to cost millions of dollars while other pieces are essentially worthless.  There are general rules of thumb that multiples are cheaper than singles, works on paper are cheaper than paintings and sculptures, and works by living artists are cheaper than works by dead artists.  But pretty much every other factor is trumped by Name.  Art by a Big Name costs more than art by a No Name.  And who's a Big Name?  It has something to do with some intrinsic and objective level of quality, but since art is so subjective it probably has a lot more to do with marketing and fashion.  Basic economic factors.
Everyone from Old King Cole to his bowl-bearer should
be able to enjoy great art.
        It seems to me, however, that if I'm going to claim that Art is something special, all about making the world a better place, then it can't be treated exactly like a pair of white socks or a spiral notebook, or any other unemotional commodity (not that those don't make the world a better place, too.)  First of all, any given piece of art is unique.  If you don't have a lot of money to buy socks, you can shop around for the cheapest pair, because there are plenty of socks in this world, and lots and lots of them are white.  If you have too much money to spend you can buy silk and cashmere socks or something, but either way you still get a pair of white socks.  Art is different.  One piece doesn't substitute for another, which is why fifty artists at an Open Studios show aren't competing with each other in the same way that fifty sock vendors would be.  None of the other artists is offering exactly the same artwork I am, and I'm not offering theirs.  Basically, if  someone comes to the sale ready to buy art and loves my block prints, they'll buy from me.  If not, they won't.  So I don't try to copy someone else's successful formula.  (Admittedly, I might make more money if I did.  Marketing has never been my strong suit.  But where would be the joy in playing wannabe?  I might as well be working at a sock factory.)
        The main force that ought to push the price of art higher is simply the time it takes to craft individual items by hand.  If you add up all the time spent on a piece, including planning, sketching, carving, printing, clean-up, matting, packaging, and selling… multiply by a decent hourly wage, and then add the cost of materials plus entry fees for shows and such, you can see why original art has to cost more than a poster at Target. 
        On the other hand, I do believe that there's also a force that should keep the cost of art from getting ridiculously high.  I believe that art is for everyone, not just a privileged few wealthy patrons.  I feel quite strongly that everyone ought to be able to have access to genuine original art, both in museums (which should not charge $2o for admission so that only the rich can afford to go!  Yes, I'm talking to you, Boston MFA!) as well as owning pieces of their own.  For that reason I make a point of keeping my own prices pretty low.  I acknowledge that my high-faluting ideals are a luxury that I can afford because D's job pays the mortgage and my art sales aren't needed to put food on the table.  I know that things can look different to my friends whose art is their primary source of income.  I wouldn't want to undercut their prices (although I'm not so worried about that because after all, we aren't all selling white socks) and nor do I want to charge so little that I don't make a fair wage myself.  Still, I make a point of having some very small, inexpensive pieces among my offerings.  And I'm pretty confident that genuine Nydams are never going to be up at auction for millions of dollars, so I don't have to worry that my democratic ideals will be assaulted that way!
         So, in conclusion, it's hard to put a price on art because
a) it's hard to compare pieces when no two are alike
b) I make art because I love making art, not because I love running a business
c) I want to have my time and effort sufficiently valued, but
d) I don't believe I should be making a luxury only for the rich.
        It's a lot to think about.  In fact, maybe I'd rather forget it all for now and just go enjoy some art instead.

[Picture: Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001.]