October 17, 2017

Mackie's Birds

        D. Helen Mackie (Canada, b. 1926) was a scientist before she became an artist, and her interest in nature is evident in all her work.  Birds are especially prevalent in her art, and all the pieces I have for you today include birds.  In this first piece the chickadees are the close focus, and I like their energy.  The background also appeals to me with its semi-abstract patterns evoking forest.  I think the stars in the upper left must be autumn leaves; our leaves are changing here now, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a great year for color for us.

        In the second piece the birds are just part of the landscape, and indeed almost camouflaged against the sweep of the sky.  How many birds are there in this piece?  Just the two large ones, or are some of the more abstract Vs birds, as well?  The flowers in the foreground are quite detailed, but the rest of the elements are simplified.  I admire the efficiency of line and pattern depicting trees and mountains.
        And finally an entire population of birds.  These birds are rough enough that I’m not sure how many different species are represented.  We’ve got a wonderful owl, and a few smaller birds, but the rest may all be crows.  (For that matter, perhaps the smaller birds are just farther in the distance?  But don’t forget the rabbit!)  This piece doesn’t have a focal point, which I think is hard to pull off, but it’s nevertheless a pleasing tapestry of branches and birds.

[Pictures: Chickadees, two-colour linocut by D. Helen Mackie, 1988 (Image from galleries west);
At Leighton Centre, block print by Mackie (Image from shepaintsred);
In Aspen Woods, woodblock print by Mackie, 2001 (Image from willock & sax gallery).]

October 13, 2017

Of Mountains and Monsters

        The true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract dragons.

        This line appears in Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (2013) as a quotation “from a Chinese poem.”  As no other citation for it appears, I have to wonder whether Henderson didn’t make it up himself.  No matter - whether the words of Henderson or some anonymous Chinese poet, I love the sentiment.  After all, it’s true of so many things in this world that we tend to value them as they can be measured and given numerical status when we should be valuing them for their beauty, or their spiritual significance, or other intangible, unquantifiable attributes.
        This wood block print of a dragon that has found its home is rather charming in itself.  The dragon looks more sly and roguish than downright fierce, and the sheep seem fairly unconcerned, although the poor shepherd boy is certainly terrified.  Not everyone is in agreement as to whether the presence of a dragon improves a mountain or not.  The print is the dragon of Wawel Castle from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis and I think the artist must have had a little fun with this dragon.

[Picture: The dragon of Kraków, wood block print from Cosmographia Universalis by Sebastian Münster, 1544 (Image from Arte Lisa).]

October 10, 2017


        Jack and The Beanstalk is one of those “problematic” tales, in which the hero is far from admirable and his quest is nothing nobler than greed.  Jack’s a quick thinker, but no one who knows him wants to hire him, which is understandable given his light fingers and general dishonesty.  The ogre’s wife is probably the nicest character, and she just gets taken advantage of.  (You can refresh your memory of the story by reading it here.)  So what is there to like about this story?  The beanstalk, of course!  What a wonderful image it gives us, starting with magic beans, representing infinite magical possibilities.  Then there’s the beanstalk itself, growing overnight until it reaches the sky.  It’s especially pleasing that it grows right up past Jack’s bedroom window so that he can climb straight out of his bedroom and up to the sky.
        And then there’s the sky at the top of the beanstalk: a solid sky country.  This is no cloudy, heavenly realm of air and wind.  It’s got a broad road and a great, tall house.  It’s also got magical things in it: magical hen, magical harp, ogre...  I presume it’s got all manner of other magical things in it, too, which we might have heard about if Jack had been more inclined to gathering knowledge rather than gold.
        Here are a few fun depictions of that wonderful beanstalk.  In the first one, the oldest, it looks as if Jack’s climbing the vine to escape his mother’s wrath.  In any case, the perspective is charmingly topsy-turvey so that Jack’s cottage looks huge and the ogre’s castle looks tiny, and Jack himself looks quite shrunk, too.  It also makes it look as though the ogre’s house is the flower blooming at the top of the vine, rather than being built in the sky on its own, with the vine simply reaching up toward it.  This wood block print has some really nice textures, especially the thatch and the tree in the background.  A very different version of the sky is imagined by George Cruikshank.  Although his vine looks much taller - even reaching above the clouds - his rocky sky looks as if it’s actually attached to the earth after all.

        Walter Crane shows us the lower portions of the beanstalk, with Jack’s cottage and angry mother in the background again, but no view of skyland or ogre’s castle at all.  And finally, a modern imagining in scratchboard.  This also gives us no view of what the skyland might look like, but does give us the dizzying perspective of a beanstalk that really has reached as high as the sky.  The town way down there on earth has telephone poles, but no sign of cars or other people about.  As for this climber, I’m holding out hope that, unlike Jack, he’s actually interested in exploring and mapping the world he finds. After all, it must be an amazing place!

[Pictures: Jack and the Beanstalk, woodcut from Round about our Coal-Fire, 1734 (Image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie);
Jack Climbing the Bean Stalk, illustration by George Cruikshank from The History of Jack & the Bean-Stalk, 1854;
Jack climbing, color wood block print by Walter Crane from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1875 (Images from SurLaLune);
Beanstalk, scratchboard by Doug Smith (Image from RonSusser.com).]

October 6, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Mystery Manuscript

        I love a good historical and linguistic mystery and this is one of the best.  The Voynich Manuscript is a 15th century codex handwritten in an undeciphered writing system and illustrated with unidentified figures.  Its 240 or so pages are divided into six sections based on the illustrations and format, and these include unidentified plants, astrology, rather symbolic biological images, “circular diagrams of an obscure nature,” and vaguely apothecary-ish themes.  The pictures are fairly crude, but the alphabet is really quite beautiful.  It seems as if it might have something to do with herbology, women’s medicine, and astrology, but of course nobody knows, what with it being undeciphered and all.
        Wilfrid Voynich was the book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912, but it has quite a long and fascinating provenance.  In 1637 Georg Baresch, an alchemist from Prague, sent my man Athanasius Kircher a sample of the text asking for his help deciphering it, since Kircher had claimed to have decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Baresch called the book a Sphynx “taking up space uselessly” in his library, but nevertheless refused to send Kircher the whole thing.  The next owner, however, gave Kircher the book, noting that he had been told it was bought by Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) for 600 gold ducats.  There is some evidence that Rudolph could have bought it from English astrologer John Dee, although this is speculation.  At any
rate, we don’t know what Kircher made of the mysterious language, and the book presumably went with all the rest of his papers into the library of the Collegio Romano, where it lay until 1870.  At that point we catch a glimpse of it being spirited into the personal library of the university’s rector in order to preserve it from confiscation by Victor Immanuel II of Italy when he captured the city, and then returned to the college in a new location.  Forty years later the college sold it to Voynich, and eventually it was given to Yale University by book dealer Hans Kraus in 1969 after he failed to sell it.
        So, what is this mysterious thing and why has no one made any progress decoding its mysterious language?  If indeed it even has any meaning?  Among those who have tried to decipher the manuscript are (possibly) Dee, whose son reported that Dee had owned “a booke… containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon;” and Baresch, who “devoted unflagging toil” to the task; and Kircher, whose thoughts we have no record of.  Moreover, the manuscript was examined and hypothesized over by several distinguished professors in the early 20th century, and by
codebreakers from World War I and World War II.  William Friedman, most  famous for breaking Japan’s PURPLE cipher during World War II, spent much of his free time over four decades trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, before finally admitting defeat.  Recent computer analyses suggest that the language shares many characteristics with natural languages (as opposed to artificial language), and that its writing flows more smoothly than is consistent with encryption.
        What do we know?  Its origin is most likely Central Europe.  Analysis of the vellum tells us not only the date (1404-1438) but also that the vellum was not previously used and that it all comes from a single area.  This rules out all possibility of modern forgery as it would be impossible to collect that much unused ancient vellum from a single source.  All the inks and paints are also consistent with the same date.  This date of origin contradicts the early and popular claims of authorship by English polymath and possibly wizard Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who would be much too early.  It also casts some doubt on claims that the manuscript was made in the seventeenth century as a hoax intended to fool Baresch and/or Kirscher.
        So we don’t know much, but what have we speculated?  Almost everything.  Some of the more intriguing possibilities include glossolalia or similarities to Asian languages.  Some of the less possible possibilities include an author from ancient Egypt or outer space.  At any rate, I think it’s something cool!  As the author of the letter to Kircher wrote in 1665/6, “such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master.”
        You can see the whole weird thing here, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Library.

[Pictures: pages from the Voynich Manuscript, early 15th century (Images from Yale University).]

October 3, 2017

Tsoka's Happenings

        Here’s a cool linoleum block print I saw at the Davis Museum (Wellesley College) last week as part of a small exhibit on recent South African printmaking.  David Tsoka (South Africa, b. 1992) is a member of Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg and this piece, unlike the others in the exhibition, echoes and carries on the long tradition of South African linocuts.  However, Tsoka definitely brings his own, modern vibe to it.  For one thing, this piece is quite large, about 3x2 feet.  But even more so, its imagery borrows not so much from a consciously African aesthetic, as many of the South African block printmakers did in the mid twentieth century, but from large-scale sculpture, comic book illustrations, sci fi movies, and even Transformers.  Also, while the title All Things Began to Happen seems from the explosion of imagery in the piece like it might be a reference to the Big Bang, in fact Tsoka says it also refers to his own birth, and the beginning of his own life.  The piece is, in fact, about “the journey of life.”  Tsoka says that the gear-like shapes evoke the idea of the passage of time because the rusting of metal shows time.  I would think that gears also evoke time because of their reference to clockwork.
        I certainly don’t know what all the little scenes and elements of the piece refer to, but I really like the texture and vibrancy of it.  The wide variety of blade marks create a pleasing balance of shades, and the mostly abstract shapes evoke a variety of possible images.  It seems as if it’s about to resolve itself into recognizable scenes, but it never quite does.  Does it depict chaos in an orderly way, or order in a chaotic way?  And maybe that’s about right for life: all those little random moments simultaneously scattered and connected, coming together into a cohesive big picture despite there being no single obvious path or focal point.

[Picture: All Things Began to Happen, linocut by David Tsoka, 2013 (Photo by AEGN, Davis Museum).]