December 28, 2012

Words of the Month - The Game is Afoot!

        Coming up soon on January 6 is Sherlock Holmes's birthday.  If this were a blog about detective fiction instead of fantasy I could compare some of the many versions of
Holmes that have come out as movies and television shows in the past few years.  But although this is not supposed to be a detective blog and I'll try not to wander too far off-topic, I can at least offer Holmes the tribute of a few vital words from his genre.

detect - Detect comes from the Latin for "uncovered, exposed," so a detective is one who uncovers hidden things.  And what do Sherlock Holmes and a stegosaurus have in common?  The Latin tegere "to cover" from which detect derives is the same as that in stegosaurus, which means "lizard that is covered by a roof," from its back plates that look like roof tiles.

murder - A word that goes right back to Old English, murder was "secret or unlawful killing," as opposed to killing someone right out in the open, which was perfectly fine.
(The victim's family might still exact vengeance or compensation, but the killer's honor was unsullied as long as he was up-front about it all.)  But it's because murder is hidden that it needs to be uncovered - detected.

victim - Originally a victim was a "living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power" (making the phrase "sacrificial victim" redundant).  By the 1650's, over a century later, the meaning of a "person who is hurt or killed by another" was found (making it thereafter necessary to specify when a victim is sacrificial).

alibi - This is quite simply the Latin for "elsewhere" or "another place," so an alibi is when the detective asks "Where were you on the night of July 19, 1953?" and you reply triumphantly, "Elsewhere!"  You might hear the word alibi used for a proof of innocence that doesn't involve being "elsewhere," but that isn't correct.

culprit - The abbreviation cul. prit was short for Culpable: prest (d'averrer nostre bille) meaning "Guilty: ready (to prove our case)"  These were the Anglo-French opening words said by a prosecutor to open a trial.  Apparently the phrase cul prit was mistakenly interpreted by English speakers as an address or reference to the defendent.

        Actually, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never tells us Sherlock's birthday, but if it was January 6, 1854, as Christopher Morley claims, Sherlock will soon be 159!  Laurie R. King, on the other hand, places his birth year as 1861.  And of course you could argue that he was really born in 1887, the year of the publication of A Study in Scarlet.
  Happy New Year!

[Pictures: "This money is not upon the list, is it?" woodcut from Bucholz and the Detectives by Allan Pinkerton, 1880 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
"He was lying in bed with froth about his mouth and a ghastly look on his face," woodcut from The Poisoner and the Detectives by Pinkerton, 1879 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
"The audacity of a professional thief," woodcut from Professional Thieves and the Detective by Pinkerton, 1880 (Image from Criminal Minds at Work and Internet Archive).]

December 21, 2012

Happy Birthday, Fairy Tales!

        Yesterday, December 20, was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm's Kinder und Hausmärchen, Children's and Household Tales.  This volume included most of the most famous Grimm tales, although not all in their current forms.  The original edition of the Grimms' collection was criticized as being inappropriate for children, both because of the content, and because of the scholarly notes the brothers included.  Later editions were adjusted to remove some sexuality and violence, and in some cases, to increase the violence of the villains' punishments!
        Whatever their flaws, either as literature or as moral models, the fairy tales indisputably hold an immensely powerful and influential place in our culture - and tales with many similar tropes exist in cultures around the world, too.  The ideas they embody - of virtue triumphant and evil punished; of patience, bravery, and loyalty saving the day; of kindness to strangers and  willingness to take people (and animals) as they come - these ideas are some of the most basic building blocks of human culture, necessary to forge community.  That people like the Nazis have manipulated them to teach racist and xenophobic lessons just goes to show the power of these deceptively simple stories; a power that can be abused, as power so often is.
        More recently there has been a veritable explosion of fairy tale expansions, in which the stock players are made into three-dimensional characters and the often random and bizarre actions are given more sophisticated motive and rationale.  These new fairy tale retellings range from fairly traditional takes, such as Robin McKinley's Beauty, to use for serious moral explorations of their own, such as Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, to fractured versions or those played for laughs, such as The Princess Tales series by Gail Carson Levine.  There's also been a recent spate of stories based on the idea of classic fairy tale characters being real people, as in Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm series and the television series "Once Upon a Time."  The fact that we keep reusing and reinventing these stories reflects not only their initial power, but the additional power that they gain by being so universally known as to be common cultural property.
        I'll conclude by mentioning the woman who asked Albert Einstein what she should be giving her son to read in order to prepare him for a future career as a brilliant scientist.  Einstein allegedly replied, "Fairy tales and more fairy tales," explaining that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist.  (The snappier version frequently attributed to Einstein, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales," is, alas, nowhere attested.)

        And on a final, unrelated note, if you're wondering about the End of the World today, you can read up on it in my post from the last time the world was predicted to end, back in May.

[Picture: Portrait of Dorothea Viehmann, a primary source of many of the tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, pen and ink by Emil Ludwig Grimm, the third Grimm brother, before 1815.  (Image from Wikimedia commons)]
(Einstein quotation from wikiquote.)

December 18, 2012

Diatomaceous Art

        Here's my most recent piece, representing diatoms.  Diatoms are a type of algae that build themselves intricate cell walls from silica.  These structures are amazingly complex and beautiful.  Like snowflakes, you can't appreciate their unique beauty without magnification, but unlike snowflakes they come in a wide variety of basic shapes and forms.  If you search on-line you can find lots of amazing photographs of these tiny natural masterpieces, which are called frustules.
        My version isn't scientifically field-guide-accurate, but I did use many of the shapes and patterns I found in the photographs to design my own interpretation of diatoms.  In addition to the standard carving techniques I also made ample use of a thumbtack to make all the tiny dots that are so prevalent in these designs.  I printed a version in grey on white as well, but found the white on black more fun.  Besides, I think that the silica forms would naturally be white, so if what I left uncarved was the forms of the diatoms, those are the forms that should be white.
        I had fun with this one.  Its final look is much more abstract than my usual stuff, and I have no idea how it will sell compared with pretty scenery, fun fantasy, or cats.  But then, the whole point of art is to follow your curiosity, explore your interests, push your ideas a little further, and celebrate beauty no matter what its source or form.  Perhaps I won't be the only one who finds these diatoms entrancing, and if I can connect with someone else in that way, then Art has done its job again.

[Picture: Diatomaceous Art, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012.]

December 14, 2012

Cabinets of Curiosities

        One of the ways people during the Renaissance tried to make sense of their world was through amassing collections of objects that were intended to represent all knowledge.  These collections were called cabinets of curiosities or cabinets of wonders, the original meaning of cabinet being a chamber or room.  However there were also smaller versions made to be contained in a piece of furniture closer to what we would call a cabinet nowadays.  Either way, these collections might include specimens representing natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religion, and art, depending on the collectors' interests, and they demonstrated their owners' learning, power, and wealth.
        Much like the Renaissance books of science that include references to mythical creatures, these cabinets of curiosities often included a mix of what we would consider truth and fiction, art and kitsch, and they represent that fascinating era when the lines between different modes of knowledge were still blurred.  This makes them fertile ground for the imagination, and cabinets of curiosities are fashionable these days in fields as diverse as interior design and, of course, juvenile fantasy.  It isn't hard to see why: the mix of wondrous, beautiful, mysterious, and sinister; priceless treasures side by side with all manner of hoaxes; tangible symbols of every realm of human and natural study…  The possibility of magic is high indeed.
       It's been noted that nowadays we can collect virtual cabinets of curiosities - some people use Pinterest in almost that way, or have blogs that they think of as cabinets of curiosities, collecting interesting tidbits from all different fields of knowledge.  Indeed, my favorite magazine, Smithsonian, is very much a cabinet of wonders when you think of it in that broader sense.
        However, the original cabinets of curiosities were not just collections of knowledge, but also of Things - often, rare, expensive, valuable Things that brought their owners tremendous bragging rights.  Naturally, the owners of these cabinets of wonders liked to make records of their magnificent collections, and catalogues remain for many of them.  There are also images of some of these proto-museums that I find wonderfully enticing.  Most of these are engravings, which allows a high level of detail the better to show off all the fabulous Stuff that's been collected.  My favorites of these prints are the ones with all the specimens visible higgelty-piggelty.  They seem like the most fun to explore, like the first picture above, showing the sixteenth century collection of apothecary Francesco Calzeolari from Verona.
        By contrast, the cabinet of curiosities depicted by Jacob von der Schley in the eighteenth century is so precisely arranged as to be almost mathematically abstract - no doubt why Schley felt the need to sprinkle about cherubic tots to add a little baroque interest.  And in the opposite direction, the piece by Saint-Aubin seems downright Romantic.  I'm surprised it has so early a date as it looks reminiscent of William Blake, to me.  In this cabinet the curiosities loom mysteriously out of the haze.  (But it has its gratuitous cherubs, too!)
        Here's a really magnificent collection - not the sort of building anyone less than royalty is capable of providing for their hobbies.  But I think my very favorite image is also the earliest, the cabinet of curiosities of Ferrante Imperato in Naples.  (Ferrante's son Francesco is the one pointing out a specimen to some visitors, below.)  I just love the big crocodile hanging from the ceiling, but if you look closely you'll notice some even more wonderful creatures, including a cross between a walrus and a platypus to the upper right and a couple of fluffy little lapdogs to the lower left.
        Here are also links to two web sites with detailed tours of some furniture cabinets that reveal amazing craftsmanship: an Augsburg Display Cabinet (c. 1630) at the J. Paul Getty Museum
        an Augsburg Art Cabinet (1625-1631) at Uppsala University  (Just be warned, these inter-active sites do take a long time to load.)
        I long to have a cabinet of curiosities of my own.  I keep teasing D that we'll have to poke through the ceiling into the crawl space under the roof, add a balcony and a spiral staircase, and fill it with a library and cabinet of wonders.  Well, I can dream, can't I?

[Pictures: Musaeum Calceolarianum, woodcut or engraving by G. Viscardi, 1622 (Image from Lexicon M);
Rariteitenkabinet, engraving by Jacob von der Schley, c. 1779;
Frontspiece from the Almanac Historico-physique, engraving by Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin, 1762 (Images from the Rijksmuseum);
Frontspiece from Wondertooneel der natuur by Levinus Vincent, 1715 (Image from BibliOdyssey, alas, without any info);
Del Museo di Ferrant Imperato, woodcut from Dell'Historia Naturale by Ferrante Imperato, 1599 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

December 11, 2012

Herald Angels

        Probably I should be working on the family holiday newsletter right now, instead of writing a blog post, but that reminds me that my earliest block prints were linoleum cut Christmas cards made in high school and college.  Yes, it's that Christmas card time of year, so here's one of those early block prints by me, and a few other angels to keep it company.

        I've chosen angels of totally different styles (but all the result of printmaking, of course.)  First, the standard: Albrecht Dürer's elaborate Renaissance angels.  With their swirling robes and stern features, this is probably how most people picture angels to this day.  The only major change is that in Dürer's time angels were definitely male, whereas since the Victorian era they're much more likely to look feminine.
        On the opposite end of the angel spectrum from winged men with holy swords are, of course, the cherubs.  (Technically, putti.)  They must buzz around like bumblebees with those tiny wings, and apparently they spend all their time bobbing about on clouds looking, well… cherubic.
        An interesting style of angel is this multiwinged character, which represents one of the (technical) cherubim.  It's pretty much all wing.  I like the words on the feathers, too.  It would really be fascinating to see a host of these angels in flight.  Its hard to imagine how the wings would all flap without getting tangled, but assuming it worked it would certainly be spectacular - a whirling, pulsating, feathery glory, with words coming down all around!
        And finally, representing the most basic kind of relief printing of all, this cute craft you can make from the hand and footprints of your adorable small tot.  My own tots are no longer tiny enough for this to be adorable - and to tell the truth, I've never been a fan of angels in my decor anyway - but I thought it was a rather
clever idea for a Christmas card… which is back to where we started.  And that reminds me, I suppose I ought to get back to work on that newsletter!

[Pictures: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, linoleum block print by AEGN, 1991;
detail from The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1497-8 (image from WikiPaintings);
Concert of cherubs in the clouds, engraving by Wenceslas Hollar, c1625-75 (image from Wikimedia Commons);
Angel from Patrologia Latina vol. 201, collected by Jacques-Paul Migne, either around 1850-5, or from a new version from the 1880's (image from Wikimedia Commons, photo by P. Vasiliadis);
handprint angel, from Motherhood on a Dime.]

December 7, 2012

Creature Collections: For Young and Old

        It's high time for more reviews of books of mythical creatures.  Here's an assortment that includes introductory books for the youngest fantasy fans, through books for scholarly adults.  None of these books made it into our top tier of beloved favorites, but all have some fun or interesting traits to recommend them.  Perhaps one will be just what you were looking for!

        Magical Creatures, by Man-eating Meg and Loch Ness Lucy - With those authors, how could I resist?  The paragraphs about each creature are entertaining introductions, and the illustrations are very bright and primitive.  I wasn't crazy about the "messiness" of most of them, but a few were quite pleasing, and they had lots of details that would be fun for little kids to notice.  This is probably a great introduction for younger children.

       The Creature Catalog, Michael Berenstain - Yes, this is one of the Berenstain family of Berenstain Bears fame, and you can definitely see it in some of the illustrations, especially the werewolf, chimera, and Bigfoot.  The pictures are printed with black and white plus only one color per page, which gives the book a really dated look.  P wasn't very impressed, although oddly, one of his complaints was that it had too many "strange" creatures, which I see as a plus.  I also like the inclusion of space aliens, which most books on fantasy creatures seem to ignore.  But on the whole, I didn't find myself getting excited about either the illustrations or the written paragraphs describing the creatures.

        The Monstrous Book of Monsters, Hamilton, Bitskoff, Duddle, and Mansfield.  This is a large book in the style of the -ology books, lavish in the matter of pop-ups, fold-outs, and flaps.  Unfortunately it is also lavish in fart humor and poop jokes.  Although it was not without some clever ideas (I liked the idea of the flow chart for disposal of captured monsters), for the most part I felt that this book was counting on gross-out laughs to substitute for creativity.  My captive nine-year-old boy, presumably well in the target audience, liked it better than I did, but not as well as he's liked others.

        The Magic of Mythical Creatures, Colleayn Mastin, illustrated by Jan Sovak - On the plus side, some different creatures such as the Iceworm and Qallupilluk, and detailed traditional-style illustrations with interesting watercolor backgrounds.  On the minus side, I don't get the impression this book was very well proofread.  The punctuation and grammar make it a bit hard to read in places.  Fun fact: only female griffins have wings; males have spikes on each side instead.

        The Mythic Bestiary, by Tony Allan - Not for young kids, this volume includes the sexual aspect of many monsters and assorted nudity (the mermaid doesn't have the seashell bikini or carefully placed tresses, for example).  For young adults or adults, however, it's a really nice reference work with a pretty comprehensive selection from world myths and legends, and lots of illustrations from different sources.

        The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, illustrated by Peter Sís - This is not a book intended for children, and it's unlikely to interest them.  There are 116 entries in which Borges allows his erudition and lit-speak free rein to the point of stream-of-consciousness.  The Cheshire Cat and the Kilkenny Cats are lumped together in a single entry without benefit of segue, and proper monsters like harpies and hippogriffs share space with a "metaphysical animal" that's a thought experiment from a philosophical treatise.  I really enjoy the breadth of the creatures' origins, and that they're culled from modern literature as well as classical mythologies, but…  when it comes right down to it, a number of these "imaginary beings" really don't qualify as proper mythical creatures at all.  The illustrations by Sís are not plentiful.  (The front cover flap calls them drawings, but they look like stippled etchings to me.)  But fans of Borges's style and his wonderful free-range musings will get a kick out of his sly humor, including a few inventions of his own slipped in amongst the classical references.

[Pictures: cover of Magical Creatures, paintings by Lucy Clibbon, written by Meg Clibbon, 2006;
cover of Monstrous Book of Monsters, by Hamilton, Duddle, and Bitskoff, 2011;
Western Dragon, etching(?) by Peter Sís, from The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, 2005.]

December 4, 2012

Angie Lewin's Relief Prints

        A friend sent me the link to Angie Lewin's web site and I thought I'd feature her block printing today.  Lewin works in a variety of printmaking techniques, but of course I'm most interested in her linocuts and wood engravings.  Interestingly, she often does prints that combine those two techniques.  Her work always includes multiple blocks and multiple colors, and sometimes the different blocks are done with different techniques, for example in this dandelion.  I assume that the black is a wood engraving, while the blue and yellow blocks were carved in linoleum.  And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to do it that way when you're combining a very detailed block with blocks of very simple shapes.
        Among other things, Lewin is also a textile designer, and I think you can really see that in her aesthetic.  There's a definite flavor of 5o's Scandinavian design in much of her work, for example in this piece with Queen Anne's lace seed heads.  Both her shapes and colors evoke that retro Swedish cheerfulness.  Admittedly I don't always love the colors - after
all, this is a blog called "Black and White" - but I like what Lewin does with the patterns, and this tiny dandelion is an example of how effective the layering of different patterns in different colors can be.  Very pleasing.

        Perhaps my favorite is this little arrangement of plant material.  I love the shapes and textures of the different plants, the stylization without becoming divorced from nature, and the balance of black with the paler colors.  It has a lovely depth while still retaining its boldness.
        It's always fun to see how differently different artists can interpret the same themes and the same media, and each come up with something so distinctive and unique.

[Pictures: Dandelion III, wood engraving and linocut by Angie Lewin;
Blue Meadow, linocut by Lewin;
Dandelion IV, wood engraving by Lewin;
Teabowl and Bracken, wood engraving by Lewin.]
(And thanks to Nan Daly for the tip!)