March 20, 2018

A is for Angduv

        Svarnil looked up at the side of the tower, and now in the pearly wall, twice the height of a man from the rock foundation, she recognized the outlines of a doorway.
        As she watched, it became darker and more solid so that from appearing to be a shadow on the wall, it became an opening in the wall.  In the opening stood a man in a black hooded cloak.  Staring up at him from below, Svarnil could make out little of the figure's appearance or expression, but she could see a short, sharp beard, and eyes deep and black under thick, dark brows.
        "You are of the Cumarún?" she asked.
        He laughed, his laughter harsh and velvety as his speech.  "I am of the Cumarún," he answered, "And yet I am not like them.  I am master of power the other Cumarún will never wield."
        There was a flash deep in his eyes as he spoke and Svarnil was suddenly frightened of the mage she had been prepared to trust.  But she answered sturdily, "Then you must know about the death in the Land of the Deerfolk."
        "What happens in the Land of the Deerfolk is no secret to me, but it does not concern me.  Only mortals fear death."
        "But the Deerfolk are not dead as mortals die, Sage.  They are living a death in life.  Are you not afraid that the shadowy warrior king could strike you also into this living death?"  A sudden gust from the ocean flapped Svarnil's cloak around her knees, and the loose strands of her fair hair whipped her cheeks.
        The voice of the black-cloaked man rang louder now, "Should I be afraid, mortal?  I am Angduv of the Cumarún, master of more power than your mortal mind can comprehend.  Should I be afraid, I whom that warrior king obeys like a whipped cur?"
        "Then you sent the warrior king to destroy the Deerfolk?" Svarnil demanded, anger lending boldness even in her fear.
        The mage laughed again from his high doorway.  "Svarnil of the Tungoldroleth, I do not need a warrior king to destroy the Deerfolk.  I could destroy them myself with a single word.  But I do not play with mortals.  No, I did not send Ãdun forth in order to destroy the Deerfolk."
        Bright clouds streamed across the sun in the wind from the sea, and light and shade chased each other across the beach and the gleaming walls of the round tower.  The man in the tower stood still and proud, looking down at Svarnil.  The elf stood in the dancing sunlight, her cloak tugging at her shoulders, her tunic flapping, her hair streaming, and she tried to understand what she had heard.
        At length she said, "The shadowy warrior is King Ãdun, risen from the dead?"
        "He is Ãdun," the mage replied, "I summoned him from the dead, for I am Angduv, master even of King Ãdun, whom the Deerfolk call their greatest hero.  I summoned the great warrior Ãdun, the great sorcerer, the great hero, King Ãdun.  I called him and he came, obedient as a sheep dog to my voice.  I called him, and I commanded him, and he obeyed."

        Angduv (and a bonus A, King Ãdun) from Song Against Shadow, a high fantasy for middle school or so through adult  (excerpt from Chapter 7: Angduv).  More information here, or “Look inside” at Amazon.

[Picture: Pleurant (Weeper), polychrome wood, 15th century, Tesoro della Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio a Milano, photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

I will add a link to the other A-Z bloggers on April 1, when the challenge officially begins.

March 16, 2018

A to Z Theme Reveal

        I’m going to take part in the April A to Z Blog Challenge once again, and today is the official grand Theme Reveal.  Since last year’s theme was block printing, this year's is writing.  Specifically, I’m going to be self-centered and feature a character from one of my own books for each letter of the alphabet.  My plan, to keep things short and sweet, is not to do a lot of analysis, but simply to illustrate each character with an excerpt in which they’re introduced, described, or reveal aspects of their personality.  As you’ll discover, if you aren’t already familiar with my work, most of what I write is at least somewhat fantastical, and much of it is for children of a range of ages.  But those genre distinctions may or may not be evident in the excerpts I share.  It isn’t about the plot or the setting, although of course elements of those will be intertwined; it’s all about the characters.  Some are heroes, some are villains, some are just innocent bystanders.  Some of the characters are the main protagonists of my stories, while others are the main protagonists only of their own stories, and are quite minor characters in my books.  I hope that they will all seem equally worthy of attention.
        Of course, that begs the question inherent in sharing my own work: why should anyone care at all?  It’s an excellent question, and one that I don’t have a good answer for, since I still, after nearly eight years of blogging, can’t really understand why all us bloggers, tweeters, instagrammers, etc. seem to believe that everyone else in the universe should care what we have to say!  I’m no best-selling household name, and none of my books has ever been made into a blockbuster movie.  Not one!  But the alphabet challenge offers an interesting way to force a selection of characters that might not otherwise be obvious, to test the premise that every character should be interesting.  So I invite you to meet 26 of my characters, and see whether any of them catch your attention, make you curious about their stories, or just tickle your imagination.  I hope you’ll find them an entertaining bunch.
        I'll be doing a slightly modified schedule, starting early so I can spread out my posts just a bit.  (Don't worry: they'll still all be linked on the correct days.)  And while you wait for everyone else to begin their posts in April, if you’re interested in what other A-Z Challenge bloggers will be sharing you can check out links to all their Theme Revelations here.

March 13, 2018

Another Snow Day!

        Another winter storm and another chance to share some wintry relief block prints.  This first one, by Wharton Esherick (U.S.A., 1887-1970), is really a holiday card entitled “December Snows.”  Well, around here we can’t be sure of a white Christmas and most of our snow tends to come January or later, so this is certainly looking more like the current scene outside my window than December.  The trees are loaded down and everything is indistinct with falling flakes.  I love the texture of this piece, with the dots of the snowflakes and the scratches and lines going every which way for the movement of blowing, falling, swirling snow.  Esherick has managed to convey so much with such a deceptively simple piece.
        The storm continues with a piece by Hasui Kawase (Japan, 1883-1957), who was famous for his views of Japan.  I find the rich blue of the canal a bit implausible, but it certainly gives the print a touch of color.  There’s no one to be seen, but the golden light in the windows implies people hunkered down, cozy inside as we are today.  Again, I like the sweep of flakes.  This time instead of lines to indicate movement, it’s masterfully done with streaks composed of larger, denser  white gouges.
        Hasui’s color woodblock print is made in the Japanese method, while this one by Paul Leschhorn (Alsace, 1876-1951) is done in the European style of one color per block.  This view is far more serene than what I’m seeing now, although perhaps this is what the world will look like tomorrow.  Certainly Leschhorn has captured the weight of the snow coating every branch and twig.  I love how this piece uses multiple shades and hues of grey to evoke a scene and feeling that would have been impossible for black and white.
        The first three artists are all roughly contemporaries of one another, but for a little historical perspective, I also have a piece by an anonymous artist depicting the Great Snow of 1717.  Back to back to back storms in February and March left five feet of snow and drifts as high as 25 feet throughout New England.  Entire single-story houses were covered, which this little image doesn’t do justice to with snow only up to the man’s thighs.  Thank goodness we’re not dealing with that, but I nevertheless feel that Whittier describes a blizzard wonderfully: “The whited air hides the hills and woods, the river and the heaven, and veils the farmhouse…the housemates sit… enclosed, in a tumultuous privacy of storm.”  Actually, it isn’t so blustery for us right at the moment, and at some point we’ll go out and start shovelling, but for now it’s nice to be enclosed in white.

[Pictures: Christmas Snows, woodcut by Wharton Esherick, 1923 (Image from Wharton Esherick Museum);
Twenty Views of Tokyo: Ochanomizu, color wood block print by Kawase Hasui, 1926 (Image from Scholten Japanese Art);
Wood block print by Paul Leschhorn (Image from Modern Printmakers);
Great Snow in 1717, woodcut or engraving by anonymous artist in The History and Antiquities of New England by John Warner Barber, 1856 (Image from Internet Archive).]

March 9, 2018

The Power of Women

        March and Women’s History Month seems an appropriate time to feature the “Power of Women” theme, which was very popular in late medieval and Renaissance art.  With my twenty-first century feminist sensibilities, I think of the Power of Women as being surely a good thing, but it was definitely more worrisome for Renaissance viewers.  Subjects were generally legendary historical women who took on roles of men or reversed roles of women, and while some of these women were considered to be virtuous and heroic, most were exemplars of how destructive it is when women wield power.  The message was that even the most heroic of men can be manipulated and brought low by the cunning and seductive wiles of a strong woman.  The stories served to reinforce the patriarchal social system by illustrating the terrible consequences, and in some cases the ridiculousness that surely would ensue whenever women took on the roles and power of men.  Subjects included Eve tempting Adam, Delilah betraying Samson, Salome having John beheaded, Jael killing Sisera, Judith killing Holofernes, Phyllis riding Aristotle, and other such scenes from history and classical literature, plus, for comic relief, genre images of hen-pecked husbands.  On the one hand, the whole theme clearly betrayed a fear of strong women and a vilification of women’s sexuality, but on the other hand, some of the subjects, such as Jael and Judith, are held up as virtuous heroines.
        The illustrations of these Power of Women stories were often fairly standardized so that they were easily recognizable.  I guess that means less scope for the artists to get creative, but there are still some amazing wood block prints among them.  The Power of Women was an especially popular theme for prints, and such prints seem to have been displayed in both public buildings and private homes (despite often having distinctly erotic undertones).  Lucas van Leydan (Netherlands, 1494-1533) is famous for having made two woodcut series on the Power of Women, as well as exploring some of the Power of Women stories in separate pieces.  So today I have for you a few of his masterful illustrations on the theme.
        First up is the most amusing: Phyllis riding Aristotle.  The story goes that Aristotle taught Phyllis’s husband or lover (Alexander the Great) that in order to concentrate on philosophy, he should forego relations with women.  In revenge, Phyllis seduced Aristotle and convinced him to let her ride him like a horse.  This is a story with which artists have had a lot of fun, and the images vary widely depending on whether the emphasis is on the humiliation, or the eroticism, or the humor.  I could probably do a whole post on different versions… but not today.  Van Leyden’s is relatively straightforward and neutral in tone, but very attractively and clearly composed - not too busy, but with plenty of interesting detail.  I love Phyllis’s
wild, luxuriant hair, and the lovely folds of her dress and Aristotle’s robes - not too easy to crawl in.  It was the disheveled hair, by the way, that helped Phyllis seduce the old philosopher.
        Next up, Salome presenting the head of John the Baptist to Herod and Herodias.  This is not a picture I would want on the wall of my house, but one interesting thing about the composition is that the scene visible out the window is John about to be beheaded.  Obviously these two elements of the picture couldn’t be happening all at once, so it’s an interesting way to get an extra story element into the scene.  Too bad Van Leyden didn’t manage to get Salome’s dance in there somewhere, too.  I do like her posture, and the tassels on the canopy are quite elegant, as well.
        Finally, here’s Delilah giving Samson a surreptitious haircut as he sleeps with his head on her lap.  Out of sight around the edge of the bluff lurk the Philistine co-conspirators, waiting to seize the warrior, who should never have allowed a woman power over him.  I love Delilah’s scissors, and the details of the landscape.  I like that Samson’s spiked club makes him look more like an ogre than a hero, and how Delilah’s sleeves pushed back make her look more like someone getting down to work in a practical way, rather than a mere seductress.
        There’s no doubt that the idea of powerful women was cautioned against in the Renaissance trope of the Power of Women, and unfortunately it’s also true that there are still plenty of people today who vilify strong women.  But at least these woodcuts allowed some exploration of the possibility of women choosing to exert their influence, and the possibility that a woman might be able to defeat even the strongest warrior or the most respected philosopher.  Even today it’s important that in art, books, movies, television, and all media we continue to explore the different ways humans can find and use their power… and make sure we start showing more positive examples of powerful women, and more healthy relations between the sexes.

[Pictures: Phyllis Riding Aristotle, woodcut by Lucas van Leyden, 16th c. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Herod and Herodias from The Small Power of Women Series, woodcut by van Leyden, c. 1517 (Image from The British Museum);
Samson and Delilah from The Small Power of Women Series, woodcut by van Leyden, c. 1517 (Image from The British Museum).]

March 6, 2018

Creature Collections: The More the Merrier

        It’s been a long time since I’ve posted any creature collection reviews, mostly because it’s been a long time since my kids were particularly interested in them.  But I still like them, and as I’ve been researching possible creatures to complete my mythical alphabet, I’ve been looking at several recently.  Here are a few stragglers that P, T, and I had all looked at several years ago, as well as a few that I’ve been consulting in the past month.

        Magnificent Magical Beasts, by Simon Holland - Gorgeously illustrated by eight artists in lavish full-page spreads, this book features 17 of the most famous mythical creatures, along with notes about multiple variations of each, including variants from different parts of the world.  Included are quotations from historical sources, fun facts, and summaries of legends.  This doesn’t have enough creatures or information to count as a full-fledged reference book, but it is an especially attractive introduction to mythical creatures with enough scholarly heft to feel satisfying.
        Dragons and Serpents, by Gerrie McCall and Lisa Regan - We especially liked the format of this one.  Each two-page spread features one creature, sometimes a species, and sometimes a particular individual.  One page has a large picture highlighting certain features of the beast, while the other side includes a map, a summary of the legend concerning the creature, and additional details and notes of interest.  I really enjoyed the selection, which included monsters from ancient legend and modern literature, and from a wide array of cultures.  Unfortunately, I definitely disliked the full-page pictures of the creatures, most of which looked bizarrely distorted, apparently in an effort to use foreshortening to give an impression of 3-D action.  Better illustrations might have launched this book into the top tier.
        Mythologies: Dragons, by John Malam - The collage format combines tidbits of information, illustrations and photographs culled from various sources, maps,  and somewhat uninspiring original illustrations.  Information pages are interspersed with "Once upon a time" pages that retell dragon legends from Europe, the Middle East, the far East, and India.  T especially liked these stories.  P also gave this book a thumb up.
        Dragons (Mysterious Encounters series), by Kelli Brucken - This is possibly the most interesting of a number of superficially very similar books in similar series.  It includes some more diverse and interesting dragon tales, not just the same as all the others.  Perhaps most unusual is a chapter on modern dragon sightings.
An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings, by Rob Hodgson and Aidan Onn -
One creature for each letter, illustrated with big, bold mixed-media spreads, some of which are quite charming, but most of which would not satisfy my childhood craving for “accurate” detail.  The creatures represent a smattering from diverse parts of the world and a few interesting surprises.  Each is described in a single paragraph that adds a bit of personal twist and humor to the traditional mythology, such as suggesting that you share your packed lunch with the minotaur or ice cream with a yeti.  Not substantive, but cute.

[Pictures: Cover of Magnificent Magical Beasts, but I can’t tell you which of the eight artists did this piece because I already had to return the book to the library, 2016;
Yetis, mixed media by Rob Hodgson from An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings, 2017.]

March 2, 2018

Name That Art

        I recently read a book by Ruth Bernard Yeazell called Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names.  It’s the sort of thing I never really thought about, just assuming, as I think most people probably do, that an artist paints a picture, gives it a title, and off it goes into the world.  As it turns out, this is a quite recent phenomenon, and not entirely straightforward even now.  Through most of western art history, paintings didn’t even have titles, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as it became more expected that they would (mostly for sale and show catalogues), it was the dealers and other middlemen who most often bestowed a name upon a painting.  This is certainly interesting, but of course the book is explicitly about paintings, since that’s the high-profile, important art, so where does printmaking come into this?  Well, as it turns out, it was often the publishers of the prints (intaglio engravings and etchings) that reproduced and disseminated paintings who gave the paintings their names.  Most paintings don’t include any words, so it was the printmakers who put text with image and then spread it out to the public.  When reproducing Old Master paintings, whose artists had not titled their works and were no longer available to have an opinion on the matter, it was often printers who decided on a name they thought would help sell their reproductions, and slapped it on.  It was certainly printers who popularized titles.
        One of Yeazell’s examples is “The Paternal Admonition,” a c.1654 painting by Gerard ter Borch that became quite famous through its 1765 print reproduction by Jean Georges Willes.  It was Willes who chose the title, but we can’t know whether that’s how he interpreted the painting, or whether the choice was purely in the interests of marketing.  In any case, however, art historians today think it likely that the painting was not intended by ter Borch to depict a familial scene of parents and daughter, but rather a madam, a prostitute, and a john.  The Rijksmuseum, where the painting resides, now calls it “Gallant Conversation, Known as ‘The Paternal Admonition.’”  The printmaker’s title is still too famous to simply ignore.
        Another example is Rembrandt’s beloved “Philosopher in Contemplation” of 1632, which has been enormously famous and popular, and inspired many a writer to wax philosophical himself on Rembrandt’s genius in capturing what it is to be a contemplator of sublime thoughts.  Of course, it turns out that the title was attached to the painting and popularized by Louis Surugue, the printmaker who reproduced it in 1754.  Art historians don’t know what Rembrandt really intended the subject of his painting to be, although almost certainly not a philosopher.  (One possibility is Tobit from the Old Testament.)  Still, nowadays a painting must have a title, and so this one remains a “Philosopher in Contemplation,” thus continuing to influence how we all view and interpret the piece.
        As an artist who considers the titling of my own work part of my job, and one of my tools for conveying my creative vision, I’m a little horrified at the idea of artwork getting hijacked and wrenched so far astray from the artist’s intention.  On the other hand, I never knew printmakers could wield such art world power!

[Pictures: Le philosophe en contemplation, etching by Louis Surugue after painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1754 (Image from The British Museum);
L’instruction paternelle, etching and engraving by Jean Georges Wille after a painting by Gerard ter Borch, 1765 (Image from The British Museum).]