January 31, 2012

Words of the Month - Artificial Life

        It seems that people have always desired to create artificial life, especially artificial humanoids.  Is it humans' desire to have the creative power of gods?  Males' jealousy of the power of women to give birth?  People's greed for power over offspring who, unlike biological children, can be controlled?  Whatever it is, this month's words highlight some of the different ways people have imagined creating artificial life.  I've listed them in the order the words entered the English language, which in some cases was a bit surprising to me.  It is not the order in which humans devised these creatures.

homunculus (1650-60, from Latin roots for "little man")  In its fantasy sense a homunculus is a miniature person created out of various materials such as wood, metal, and flesh, and given life through alchemy or some such magic.  Like many of the artificial life forms here, it's often a servant of its creator.  Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke features a charming homunculus.  There's an odd picture book Hannah and the Homunculus by Kurt Hassler in which a willful girl gains total control over her parents with the help of a word-collecting homunculus.  (And apparently the "Secret Series" by Pseudonymous Bosch includes a homunculus, but I haven't read those.) *

android (1720-30, from Greek roots for "man-like") An android is simply an automaton in the form of a human, placing it in science fiction rather than fantasy.  I was surprised this word predated science fiction as a genre, since nowadays everyone thinks of C3-PO from "Star Wars," Data from "Star Trek," or Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  But apparently even back in the eighteenth century people were trying to build mechanical humans for fun and profit.  A nice example of the pre-electronic version is Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz and subsequent books by L. Frank Baum.  (The automaton in The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is, of course, the non-fantastical kind.  T was pretty disappointed that "all" it could do was draw, but of course these old androids are truly amazing!)

Frankenstein (1830-40, from Mary Shelley's novel published in 1818)  As any English major knows, "Frankenstein" was the name of the scientist who was trying to create artificial life out of bits and pieces of human corpses and electricity.  The creature he created was never given a name in the novel.  Colloquially, however, Frankenstein means the monster, specifically a monster that was deliberately created but then cannot be controlled and becomes dangerous and destructive.  Not only has the word Frankenstein shifted meaning from the creator to the creation, but the segment Franken-, which etymologically is meaningless, is now a productive prefix in English.  In examples including Frankenfish and Frankenfood it usually signifies something cobbled together and running amok (often specifically genetically engineered organisms).  The book in which to read about a "Frankenstein" is, of course, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, though it isn't by any means a juvenile book (even if all "classics" seem to get shelved in the children's section these days.)  I can't think of any others, though I'm sure there must be some that share the theme, if not by name.  The Franny K. Stein books by Jim Benton are, of course, a reference to the name of the mad scientist, but I don't recall that Franny K. ever tries to create artificial life in any of the volumes that P read. *

zombie (1865-75, from voodoo, from Kongo or Kimbundu for "god," which seems to me like a strange derivation)  Zombies, like Frankenstein monsters, involve artificially returning the life to dead bodies.  Like many other forms of artificial life, their creators want something without free will that will obey any command.  In the case of zombies such commands tend to be all about spite and revenge.  However, in the more modern imagining of zombies they are more self-motivated - even if their motivation is purely to eat brains.  I can't list any good books including zombies, because I don't read books about zombies!  (Except for Reg the zombie in various books by Terry Pratchett.)  But I am mildly amused by the game "Plants vs. Zombies" - does that count? *

golem (1895-1900, from Yiddish from Hebrew for "shapeless thing")  The golem comes from Jewish folklore and is a creature molded from clay and brought to life through knowledge of the Cabalah.  Though not the original golem, the most famous is the Golem of Prague.  There are many retellings of the story.  A rather dark version
that pulls no punches but has dramatic Caldecott-winning illustrations done with cut paper is Golem by David Wisniewski.  Chapter books featuring golems include The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud, and Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (I did not like this book, mostly because I felt that the plot was driven purely by the unbelievable selfishness and stupidity of [at least] one of the protagonists.  But both P and T absolutely love the series, so obviously what bothered me didn't bother them.  And as a bonus the series also includes a limberjack with artificial life, so it's got that going for it.)  For the younger reader or listener may I suggest Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster?  For older readers I also suggest Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (not juvenile, but a story that really explores questions of free will, personhood, and what it means to be alive).


robot (1920, coined by Karel Capek from Czech for "compulsory labor owed by peasants")  A robot, like an android, has a scientific rather than magical explanation for its ability to mimic life.  Robots range from rough chunks of metal that speak in a monotone to beings that can pass for fully human.  There are far too many books featuring robots to try for a big list, but I'll mention three series that P enjoyed when he was probably around second grade:  Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot by Janet and Isaac Asimov, the "Andrew Lost" series by J.C. Greenburg, and the "Akiko" series by Mark Crilley.

* For reviews of several books featuring "Frankenstein monsters," plus a zombie book and a homunculus book, see my Oct. 5 post Fran'n'Stan 'n' More.

[Pictures: Making a homunculus, 19th century engraving from Faust Part II by Goethe (image from Wikimedia Commons);
The cheese golem, drawing by AEGN from Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster, 2012.]

January 27, 2012

Queen Anne's Lace

        Queen Anne's lace is the wild carrot, introduced to America from Europe.  The froth of tiny white flowers looks like lace, and the single dark flower in the middle is said to represent a drop of blood where the queen pricked herself with her needle.  The funny thing is, though, it isn't called Queen Anne's lace any place there ever was a Queen Anne.  In the UK its common name is apparently "bishop's lace."  But Queen Anne's lace is a much better name, for two obvious reasons.  First, anything named after "Anne" has to be good.  (Okay, there may be a slight bias there.)  But secondly, anything with a name that begins with Q is invaluable to those of us with a love of alphabetics.  I have yet to see a botanical alphabet with Q represented by anything else but Queen Anne's lace.  (Hmm.. I guess you could use quince…)
        I have here today three block prints of Queen Anne's lace, from three gardening alphabets.  First up is the Q from Gerard Brender à Brandis's Wood Engraver's Alphabet.  It shows his all-over, meticulously detailed style.  But although his depiction is very detailed, it's not laid out at all like a botanical print but instead seems more like a close-up snapshot in a field, or else a design for fabric.  Queen Anne's lace, with its tiny white lines, is a natural for carving into a black background as Brender à Brandis has done here.
        The second Q comes from Mary Azarian's Gardener's Alphabet.  Azarian paints her wood block prints in this book with watercolor, making them perhaps less dramatic, but brighter and more cheerful.  Azarian's version is no botanical drawing either, since she's shown not only the plant but a whole scene of people picking and enjoying the flowers.  Although this piece mostly uses the more traditional black lines on white, the thick field of plants and flowers is actually done by leaving the black background.
        Finally, my version of Queen Anne's lace, made as the Q for my botanical alphabet poster.  Unlike the other two, I've focussed on just one plant, but like them I left the black background around all the tiny white details.  I made sure to include one of my favorite parts of the flower - not just the little flowerets, but the delicate, feathery spikes of the leaves and bracts.

[Pictures: Queen Anne's Lace, wood engraving by Gerard Brender à Brandis, from A Wood Engraver's Alphabet, 2008;
Queen Anne's Lace, wood block print with watercolor by Mary Azarian, from A Gardener's Alphabet, 2000;
Queen Anne's Lace, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]

January 24, 2012

Happy New Year of the Dragon!

        Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and this is now the Year of the Dragon.  I shall, of course, celebrate with block prints of dragons!  While you enjoy them, consider how the dragon is magnanimous, stately, vigorous, strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, eccentric, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, pioneering, artistic, generous, and loyal, but also tactless, arrogant, imperious, tyrannical, demanding, intolerant, dogmatic, violent, impetuous, and brash.  No wonder you need to be circumspect when dealing with dragons.  And no wonder dragons never responded well to those medieval European knights charging in pell mell with their rude swords and accusations.
        All the dragon wood block prints I have here are actually Japanese.  You'll often hear that Japanese
dragons have three claws per foot, while Indonesian and Korean dragons have four, and Chinese dragons have five.  Alternately, common dragons have four and only Imperial dragons get to sport five.  In any case, count up the toes on these wood block prints, do the math, and make of it what you will.  I have two nineteenth century depictions and a modern one.  The second of these dragons, by Kuniyoshi, is interesting because the wood block print was clearly trying to reproduce the look of a brush painting.  You can see how the ends of the lines are carved to look as though they're fading off like brush strokes.  (Hajime, the artist who made this third dragon, is notable because according to one web site, he "began his artistic career as a sculpture."  If so, he's done a great job of overcoming his stiffness - I thought his work was beautiful even by normal human standards!)


        There's another excellent mythological creature associated with the Chinese New Year, and that's the Nian.  Nians live under the ocean or up in the mountains and used to come out at the New Year to attack people, especially yummy juicy children.  Luckily, despite its ferocity, it's afraid of loud noises and the color red, and now that people know to take these simple precautions, it hasn't been seen by humans for a long time.  There are several versions of the Nian's ultimate fate.  In one version it becomes the mount of a priest.  In another version it's slain by the villagers who banded together against it.  In another story it's defeated by a lion, and in yet another version it's the villagers in a lion costume who defeat the dreadful monster.  That's why you get lion dances at New Year's festivities.  (Some lion dancers once performed at P and T's school.  Part of the dance included the lion kicking a cabbage (or was it an orange?) up into the air and then catching it in its mouth.  To everyone's incredible delight, one of the cabbages (or oranges?) was kicked so high it flew straight into a big can light above
the stage and exploded it with sparks!  Now that's a dance routine anyone can
appreciate.)  So, what does the Nian look like?  That's an excellent question.  I sure wish I knew the answer.  Maybe sort of like a Chinese lion with touches of unicorn and ox?  I wasn't able to find any definitive traditional depictions.
        In a cool linguistic note, however, "nian" is also the Chinese word for "year."  So,  Xin Nian Hao - Good New Year (and good new Nian) - to all!

[Pictures: Dragon, Japanese color wood block print, Chinese school, 19th century, (image from Wikimedia Commons);
Dragon and Waves, color wood block print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1827-31 (image from the Smithsonian Institution);
Dragon 8, color wood block print with gold and silver, by Namiki Hajime, 2007 (image from this web site);
Nian, from an e-book - see this advertisement for details.]

January 20, 2012

T's Favorite Poem

        I can't remember exactly how it came up, but P and T have had a poetry unit recently in school and T said something or other to which the only appropriate response was to start reciting "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes.
             The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
             The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
             The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, 
And the highwayman came riding—
  Riding—riding— 
             The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
        I know the first several verses by heart, but after a while I declared that I wasn't doing the poem justice, and I fetched a book and started again, reading it aloud to T and P with all the melodrama and beauty it deserves.
             Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
             With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
             Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
  When they shot him down on the highway,
  Down like a dog on the highway,
             And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

        "The Highwayman" (1906) is not the sort of poem that's fashionable these days.  The story it tells is pure soap opera without any attempt at exploration of self or capturing what it is to be alive in our modern world.  The language is over-the-top poetical, right down to Tim the Ostler's "hair like moldy hay," which cracks me up every time.  If Noyes submitted this poem to a critic today he would be scorned and derided and held up as an example of the worst kind of amateur idiocy.  He would certainly not be published, much less admired.
        So let me tell you what happened when I finished my dramatic reading of this less than stellar poem.  T immediately ran to get paper and pencil, settled herself on the loveseat beside me, and composed a poem of her own.  Her poem was about 20 lines long, describing a fairy gathering in a dark woods.  It borrowed the use of repetition from Noyes, as well as a certain flavor of moonlight and mystery.  Over the next week or so T reread "The Highwayman" enough times to memorize the first verse and bits and pieces from other parts of the poem.  All fired up, she had me print out several pages of poems for her, her favorites selected from the stack of anthologies I put in her eager hands.
        In their school poetry units over the past few years, P and T have been regularly instructed not to make their poems rhyme.  When they come home complaining, I explain to them that the teachers are just trying to make sure that their first priority is to pick the perfect word for the situation, instead of trying to jam in an irrelevant or inappropriate word simply because it happens to rhyme.  But after trying to help justify the teachers' reasoning, I go on to sympathize with my children, because in my heart I know something about poetry that all the critics of the past fifty years or more seem to have missed.  I'd be willing to bet (if I were a betting woman) that "The Highwayman," for all its melodrama, has created more poetry-lovers than all the deep, gritty, relevant, impenetrable words of today's "best" poems.  Prose broken up into lines is not poetry, and perhaps it takes a child to prove that simple fact.
        Of course I'm absolutely not saying that words have to rhyme to be poetry.  What I am saying is that children - and perhaps adults, too - don't learn to love poetry by reading just any old words.  The power of real poetry is that it grips us more deeply than the mere meanings of the words.  The words of poetry are more than their sum.  They are meaning and sound, rhythm and emotion and color and light, exploding pictures in the mind and unfurling blossoms in the heart.  Poems pour into us in a purer form than prose, and it's all those poetic tools that make it possible: simile and metaphor, startling images, juxtapositions, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, and yes, rhyme.  The best poems sound like they rhyme even when they don't, because the words move with such a cadence as they pour in.  And the poems that sound just like prose?  Well, do they make you grab a pencil and start writing your own visions?  Do they cling to your imagination so that within days you have them by heart?  Do they make you hungry for more poetry?  That's what "The Highwayman" did for T.

[Pictures: Turpin clearing the Toll Gate, wood block print, anonymous, 1837;
Tom King, wood block print for a Victorian paper theatre.]

January 17, 2012

Eric Ravilious - Snow!

        We have snow here, for the first time this winter (not counting that crazy October snow, because that wasn't winter yet.)  P and T were outside as soon as they got up this morning, trying to make snow horses before they had to head off to school.  This has got to be the first winter I've ever experienced in which there was no snow until mid-January, so instead of being sick of snow already, as we normally would be by now, it's a fun winter novelty.
        In honor of the snow, and of the fact that I refilled some bird feeders this morning after seeing T and P off on their booted and mittened way, I feature here today two pleasing little wood block prints by Eric Ravilious.
        Ravilious (1903 - 1942) was mostly known for murals, watercolors, and designs for Wedgewood ceramics.  Of his wood block prints one review of a 2010 show of his work said, "they are minor creation. They are essentially book-plate emblems, with at best an antiquarian charm. They are heavily blacked in, decorative, heraldic, cramped
and neat. The figures are wooden. The views are artificial. The subjects are either stiff or twee. Avoid them. It's the sort of thing people like to take classes in."  Ouch.  (Not just for Ravilious, but for those amateurs who dare to take classes in something best left to True Artistes who rate the Art World's approval!)  Anyway, I'm not crazy about all of Ravilious's work that I found on-line, but I find these two particular prints delightful.



[Pictures: Snow, wood block print by Eric Ravilious, 1932;
Swallows, wood block print by Eric Ravilious, 1932.
Images from Modern British Gallery.]
Quotation from The Independent, 13 July, 2010.

January 13, 2012

Friday the Thirteenth

        Happy Friday the Thirteenth!  We'll have three of them this year, the most possible in a calendar year.  (Every calendar year must have at least one, and at most three Friday the Thirteenths.)  2012 is extra-special, though, in being a leap year with three Friday the Thirteenths, something that happens only once every 28 years.  And that gives an extra fillip of fun to the phobic: our three Friday the Thirteenths are each exactly thirteen weeks apart.
        But what's so special about Friday the Thirteenth anyway?  Like most superstitions it's basically a fantasy, and as such it can be used to set the scene for a fantastical occurrence.  George Orwell's 1984 famously begins with clocks striking thirteen, which of course is not fantasy when you use a 24 hour clock, but nevertheless taps into the superstition of unlucky thirteen to set the stage.  When you do have a twelve-hour clock, the thirteenth strike heralds in not just mere unpleasantness, but actual magic, as in Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  The ill-omen of thirteen plays into the atmosphere of the Duke's dark castle in James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks, too.  Friday the Thirteenth sets the magic for at least some versions of the body switch in Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, but not surprisingly, the majority of fantasy based on Friday the Thirteenth is of the horror variety.  (Ugh.)
        Thirteen has had a long history of superstition in many cultures around the world.  Two of the most common "reasons" are that in Norse mythology Loki was the thirteenth god to join the party at which he caused the death of Baldur, and in Christian lore Judas was the thirteenth disciple, who caused the death of Jesus.  Really thirteen is probably seen as an imperfect number because it's one more than the nice mathematical roundness of twelve.  But what about when the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday?  What's that all about?
        A study in 1907 asked 1,875 college students to list all the superstitions they knew of.  Only two listed "If the 13th day of the month comes on a Friday, evil things are more likely to happen than at any other time."  But in 1933 another study found that 95% of seniors at seven colleges believed that "Friday the 13th always brings bad luck."  Something happened in between to popularize a new superstition.
        In the nineteenth century you had unlucky 13 and you also had Friday as the unluckiest day of the week.  When they came together it was extra unlucky, but only because two separate bad lucks were both in force, like if you were to drop a mirror onto a black cat or something.  (Which is the perfect place to mention a silly bit of Friday the Thirteenth trivia.  In 1939 the town board of French Lick, Indiana ordered that for the 24 hour period of Friday the 13th all black cats in town had to wear bells so that superstitious residents could more easily avoid them.)  Before 1908 the date was always written with a comma, "Friday, the 13th," as in two separate bits of information.  But in 1907 Thomas W. Lawson published a novel called Friday, the Thirteenth about stock traders who took advantage of superstition to crash the market.  It wasn't just the now-forgotten book itself that popularized the idea, though.  Lawson launched a huge and on-going marketing campaign in which he took out large ads in the New York Times pushing the superstition by way of pushing interest in his book.  Apparently it worked.  Now "Friday the Thirteenth" is considered one of the most common and well-known superstitions.  (Except in Spanish-speaking countries, where it's Tuesday the Thirteenth you have to watch out for.)
        Finally, you'll need to know what to call the fear of Friday the Thirteenth that you'll find in books and possibly real life.  The first word is friggatriskaidekaphobia, named after Frigga, the Norse goddess after whom Friday is named.  The rest of the word is the more commonly known triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number thirteen, which first appeared in a psychology text in 1910.  (It's built from Greek roots, although it's the Greek for "three and ten" rather than the Greek for "thirteen.")  Another word for fear of Friday the Thirteenth is paraskevidekatriaphobia, from the Greek roots "Friday," "thirteen," and, of course, "fear."  Most sources say this word was coined by therapist Dr. Donald Dossey, but one source said it first appeared in 1911 and was first written in a mainstream source in 1953.  I don't know when Dr Dossey was born, but as he's still alive and working I have my doubts that he was coining psychotherapy jargon a hundred years ago.  Somebody must be wrong on this!
        Anyway, instead of thinking of Friday the Thirteenth as an unlucky day, it would be a lot more fun to think of it as a magical day, and enjoy!

[Pictures: illustrations by Marc Simont, from The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, Simon & Schuster, 1950;
Guardian Cat, linocut by Carol Wilhide, 1993.]

January 10, 2012

Anna Heyward Taylor



        Anna Heyward Taylor (1879-1956) was an artist known for her block prints and watercolors.  She's particularly known for her work depicting landscape and culture of South Carolina, where she was born and lived for much of her life.  She did, however, travel extensively, where she worked with artists who specialized in Japanese style woodcuts, and artists in Provincetown, Massachusetts, who were developing their own unique style of woodcuts.  (There will be posts on each of these styles some day, no doubt.)  So while Taylor is known as a regional artist, her work was certainly influenced by her broad artistic education.


        One thing I find particularly pleasing about Taylor's work is the balance of black and white.  In this image of Charleston in the distance, for example, the heavy blackness of the tree makes a nice frame, and the blackness of the tiny buildings contrasts perfectly with the whiteness of the intervening space.
        In this one, Bennett's Rice Mill, I really enjoy the "carviness" of the lines.  There's no lack of detail, but the piece looks distinctly carved.  You can see the direction and depth of the blade.  I really like that hand-crafted quality.
        Taylor did a lot of pictures relating to the agriculture of South Carolina, from boll weevils to people working in the cotton fields.  Bennet's Rice Mill is from one series of South Carolina subjects.  (I'd like to include one with field workers, but I don't have enough space, so be sure to check out some of the other images at the Gibbes Museum of Art.)  Anna Heyward Taylor also did pictures of South Carolina animals, a subject I can really relate to, since I keep coming back to my local animals as subjects.
        I think Anna Heyward Taylor deserves a little more recognition.





[Pictures: Charleston Housetops, wood block print by Anna Heyward Taylor, c 1920;
The City, linoleum block print by Taylor, 1939;
Bennett's Rice Mill from the series "This Our Land," linoleum block print by Taylor, 1948;
White Egrets from the series "This Our Land," linoleum block print by Taylor, 1948.
(All images from the Gibbes Museum of Art.)]

January 6, 2012

Mana

       The word mana comes from Polynesian (first used in English c 1843) and is defined as "a dynamic power dwelling in and flowing from certain individuals, spirits, or things, and capable of producing great good or evil," or "power achieved by ritual means; prestige; authority," or "a concept of life force, believed to be seated in the head, and associated with high social status and ritual power."  According to the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, it is "Among Polynesian and Melanesian peoples, a supernatural force or power that may be ascribed to persons, spirits, or inanimate objects. Mana may be either good or evil, beneficial or dangerous, but it is not impersonal; it is never spoken of except in connection with powerful beings or things."
        Mana is an important concept in certain religions, but I'm thinking of it not in any technical theological sense, but in its role in fantasy.  The fantasy connection is obvious, since mana is one model for how magic might work in a fantasy world.  In the on-line fantasy role-playing game World of Warcraft and other games of its ilk, mana is the cost of casting spells.  A magic-wielding character has a certain amount of mana, and each possible spell costs a certain amount of mana.  That's probably the most common usage of the word mana these days: if you have enough mana, you can work magic.  If you don't have enough, you need to get more.  In World of Warcraft you regain mana by waiting for your supply to slowly replenish itself.  If you don't want to wait, you can drink a mana potion, or eat mana-replenishing food, or benefit from the action of various spells.  And when your mana reserves are once again full, you can cast all your spells again, boom, zap, kapow.  Presumably in the fantasy universe of a book, rather than the mechanics of a computer game, mana could be regained by performing rituals, offering sacrifices, eating the hearts of opponents with a lot of mana, possessing objects of sacred power, and so forth.  It might be interesting to imagine that mana is captured in objects by the work of skilled artists, that truly great works of art possess mana: power.
        That brings me to the other thing I associate with the word mana.  Mana was the subject of a talk I heard by artist Francisco Mendez-Diéz.  He asserted that to be art, images must have power, and that powerful images come from deliberately looking for mana.  That mana power, he said, can come from shared experiences, from authenticity and honesty to self, or from the act of adoration of an image or object.  Meaning equals power.  These are some interesting ideas, and while I don't think that I venerate raw power, for good or evil, to the extent that Mendez-Diéz seems to, he did say a few things I found very helpful in thinking about making and viewing art.
        The first of these is the distinction he drew between images of power and images with power.  Images of power are simply depictions of something that has no particular depth of meaning to the artist.  For example, if I were to draw a picture of Zeus smiting things with thunderbolts, it would be a picture of power, but it would have no particular power of its own, since I don't much care about Zeus.  Images with power, Mendez-Diéz said, are made when the artist is working with a subject that truly speaks to him, so that he's not merely depicting another's ideas and beliefs but is wrestling with his own.  All this can get a little mystical for me, but I do very much like the reminder that as an artist I'll be doing my best work when I follow my own attractions, explore my own desire for understanding, and work to express my own visions authentically, rather than producing stuff that I imagine other people will want to buy.  The reminder is equally valid for writing.
        The other interesting point Mendez-Diéz raised was a question: Is it a unique quality of artists that they see power in a different way?  (I certainly don't think I see power in quite the same way he does, but whether that means one of us isn't a real artist is another question!)  Think of the phrase, "Oh, I see!" meaning, "I get it!  I understand."  If we cultivate our ability to see, does that give us greater insight, greater understanding?  And if we possess greater understanding, does that give us greater power, greater mana?  I'm leery of grandiose claims about the superiority of artists, but at the same time I do believe in the power of creative habits of mind.  I do believe that all of us would benefit if more of us cultivated our ability to glimpse and pursue unexpected connections, to look for alternatives, and to find and create beauty all around us.  So if mana is power that we can draw on by thinking creatively, then let's hope we never suffer from the frustrated cry heard in the midst of many a desperate battle in World of Warcraft: Out Of Mana!

[Picture: Papuan Idols, engraving from Ridpath's Universal History, Volume VIII, 1894;
Vision and the mechanism for response to external stimuli, woodcut from Tractatus de homine by René Descartes, 1644.  (Image from National Library of Medicine Image Collection.)]

January 3, 2012

Illustrations by Fernand Léger

        Here's something interesting.  Fernand Léger (1881-1955) is a French artist known for his own version of Cubism, Futurism, Purism, and all that was modern and populist during his lifetime.  His work is usually characterized by bright blocks of color, machine-like people doing modern jobs, and lots of primary colors -- but his taste for bold geometric designs translates well to block prints.  He made black and white wood blocks to illustrate a book by André Malraux in 1921.
        Malraux's book, Lunes en Papier, (Paper Moons) was published in an edition of only 112 and includes three Absurdist stories illustrated with seven block prints by Léger.  The publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, also ran a gallery in Paris and was Léger's first champion when he first began to show his paintings and was feeling unappreciated by art critics.
        Léger's black and white images are abstract arrangements of unshaded shapes, some of which I find quite pleasing.  I think my favorite is the first one above.  It has a nice balance, symmetrical without being static, monumental without being dull.


        Thanks to the National Library of the Netherlands, where I found these images.



[Pictures:  wood block prints by Fernand Léger, from Lunes en Papier by André Malraux, 1921:
from page 21, p 32, cover.]