December 31, 2019

Word of the Month - Therianthrope

        Therianthropic - adj. being partly animal and partly human in form; of or pertaining to deities conceived or represented in such form (from Greek “wild beast” + “human”).
        This adjectival form, interestingly, seems to be a more standard dictionary word than the noun therianthrope, and I suspect that the noun may be a back-formation.  It has also acquired a more diffuse range of meanings, but let’s start with the basics.  The ancient Egyptian gods, with their human bodies and animal heads, are representatives of that most basic definition.  There are also plenty of examples in classical Greek mythology, including fauns, satyrs, centaurs, harpies, and the minotaur.  The personage below is a cyanocephalus, or dog-headed humanoid, from classical and medieval tales of distant lands.
        Therianthropy is also defined as shape-shifting: not just existing with both human and animal features, but switching entirely between wholly human and wholly animal forms.  Werewolves are the most obvious example, in addition to selkies and bird maidens, and there are shapeshifters in mythologies around the world.  A recently-added definition of therianthrope is a person who identifies, spiritually or psychologically, as a non-human animal.  Sticking with the original definition, however, therianthropic characters abound in the religions and folklores of people around the world, from hybrid monsters such as mermaids, to shapeshifting spirits such as kitsune, to animals that take human form in order to marry humans and found races and clans, to all manner of gods and demons.  Clearly this is a topic we humans find rich and fascinating.  But when did we first start telling stories of therianthropes?
        I encountered the word in a recent article about the discovery of Indonesian cave paintings at least 43,900 years old, “the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”  (The famous scenes on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France are probably only about 17,000 years old.)  The scene in the Sulawesi cave appears to be a group of eight figures hunting wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes, and according to the archaeologists, some of those figures are therianthropes.  I confess they’re not detailed enough for me to feel confident of the identification of what I’m looking at, but I’ll take the archaeologists’ word for it.  One of them, Adam Brumm, said, “We can point to these enigmatic images of therianthropes as the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings.”  Of course we have no idea what stories those ancient artists were telling or what the various figures meant to them, but it does seem safe to assume that their view of the world was more than merely literal, which reinforces just how basic and vital a part of the human identity it is to picture and share ideas of things that are beyond material experience.

[Pictures: Merman and Harpy, wood block prints from Ortus sanitatis by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Images from Boston Public Library);
Cyanocephalis, wood block print from Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) by Hartmann Schedel, 1493 (Image from Universiteit Utrecht);
Bird-billed humanoid? cave painting from Sulawesi, Indonesia, c. 42000 BCE (Image from New York Times).]

December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas!

        This relief print of the birth of Jesus comes from one of the earliest books to combine woodcut illustrations with moveable type, the Biblia pauperum of 1462-3.  It is hand colored, and it amuses me that Mary’s halo is green.  Yellow wouldn’t have shown up, but I’d have thought they could leave it unpainted and it would look bright against the stable.
        The Christmas greeting from Gustave Baumann is very different: secular rather than religious, freestanding rather than part of a book, colored with separate blocks rather than painted…  However, it too has an interesting twist to its printing.  It is cut from linoleum blocks “transferred
and printed from stone,” which I interpret as a sort of offset lithography.  I don’t know why this seemingly needlessly complicated method was used, but at least it retains the look of the linoleum cuts.  I always love the look of lighted windows at dusk.
        For those who celebrate Christmas, may it be full of joy!


[Pictures: Nativity, hand-colored woodcut from Biblia pauperum published by Albrecht Pfister, c 1462-1463 (Image from Bavarian State Library);
Fröhliche Weihnachten, color linocut transferred to and printed from stone, 1905 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

December 21, 2019

Happy Hanukkah!

        In honor of Hanukkah, today’s wood block prints depict menorahs.  Of course, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that these all have 7 branches, which makes them temple menorahs, instead of the 8+1 branches of a Hanukkah menorah (aka hanukkiah).  The hanukkiah’s extra branches came about after the fall of the Second Temple in the first century CE, when people were prohibited from having replicas of the sacred 7-branched menorah outside the temple, so they made a variant for use in their homes.  There don’t seem to be any older depictions of these household candelabra because Hanukkah wasn’t an important holiday anyway.  So all the block prints I’ve found are illustrating the important stuff, and that’s the temple’s 7-branched version.
        This first wood block print illustrates a commentary from 1609, and I like the way all the parts are labelled.  I don’t know what the labels say, but I think it’s interesting that the labels are repeated on all the parts, not just one
of each.  The base has a particularly attractive design, nicely carved with lines of shading.
        Next is a very detailed illustration of the temple treasures from a Catholic Bible of 1494.  I do like the way the dark background allows the menorah’s flames to look bright.  This menorah’s design is very contemporary to its time.  I also find the elaborate border very interesting in its choice of details.  Frog, moth, grasshopper… not the decorative choices I would have expected.
        The third illustration amuses me because it makes the menorah look about two stories tall.  I mean, I know the little people are in the background, but they’re not that far away.  This is a menorah worthy of modern public holiday decor, perhaps in Times Square!  However, it isn’t as fancy as some of the others.  The base is lovely, but the arms are quite simple.
        And finally, something from the twentieth century.  If these children are celebrating at home, then perhaps their menorah should have nine arms, but setting that aside, there are two candles lit.  I wonder whether artist Irving Amen originally had another flame or two before extinguishing them by carving them away!  The background is particularly interesting, with its printed wood grain.
That background block had some areas carved out to be the base of the children, but also to leave the table’s placemat paper-colored.
        There are plenty of lights in these wood block prints, and I hope they bring special joy to anyone celebrating Hanukkah in the next week, and a bit of extra light to all at this darkest time of year.

[Pictures: Menorah, wood block print from Yosef Da’at by Joseph ben Issacher Baer, 1609 (Image from Sotheby’s);
Illustration of temple goods, wood block print from Catholic Bible printed by Johann Dietenberger, c 1494 (Image from National Library of Austria);
Menorah, wood block print by Bernhard Salomon from Wol gerissnen und geschnidten Figuren ausz der Bibel, 1564, originally for 1553 book (Image from e-rara Zentralbibliothek Zürich);
Sabbath Lights, woodcut print by Irving Amen, mid-twentieth century (Image from Worth Point).]

December 18, 2019

Jealousy as Fear

        As was her wont, Ursula K. LeGuin here expresses perfectly something that I had obscurely glimpsed in myself but not quite put my finger on until reading her sharp and lucid explanation.  It needs no further comment.

        Jealousy sticks its nasty yellow-green snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, and Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.
        The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately, it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.

[Picture: The Horse and the Ass, wood engraving by Boris Artzybasheff, from Aesop’s Fables, 1933;
Quotation from essay “About Anger,” from No Time to Spare by LeGuin, 2017.]

December 13, 2019

Big Bold Cats by Artzybasheff


      Boris Artzybasheff (Russia/USA, 1899-1965) was an illustrator and graphic designer, and I recently came across a couple of books which he illustrated with wood engravings.  Today I have for you some of his depictions of Aesop’s fables, and more specifically, the ones I’ve chosen all happen to depict big cats.  Although wood engravings are usually used for more highly detailed images with fine texture everywhere, Artzybasheff’s are very bold, with lots of solid black and white.  However, you can see very fine cross-hatching in some places, such as this tiger’s face, and lots of quite thin lines.
        You can see that Artzybasheff gives his pictures lots of movement.  He uses boldly curving shapes, emanating lines of light, and dramatic angles to give this sense of animation.  Each of these pieces has a strong diagonal.  This double piece is especially clever for another reason, as well.  It’s actually the same block printed in two different orientations, so that either cat can be on top in the battle.  They make a sort of
yin-yang, although one in which the balance is violent rather than peaceful.  (For some time I have been mulling a piece that could be viewed in either direction, but I can’t figure out how that plays out in something framed and hung on the wall.  It’s easier to show both perspectives at once, as Artzybasheff has done on the page in this book.)
        Another common factor among all these pieces is the way Artzybasheff captures emotional attitudes, from the ferocity of the first tiger to this leopard’s wonderful arrogance, to the quizzical expression of the lion below.  The facial expressions are certainly a large part of it, with their various eyebrows and mouths, but Artzybasheff also makes masterful use of those same techniques of dynamic postures and lines of light and dark to emphasize the emotion.  The leopard’s attitude couldn’t be clearer - but the fox is quite mysterious.  What is he thinking, with his mask-like face and statue-like posture?
        Note, too, how Artzybasheff uses the background foliage to highlight and emphasize the movement of his main characters.  Leaves flicker behind the fierce tiger like black flame or smoke; they bow down below the regal leopard and form a canopy above his head.  Behind the lion and mouse, they offer wonderful texture and visual interest, and I love their whimsical shape and bark pattern - but I think it’s
not too much of a stretch to say that they are in keeping with the ambiguity of the lion’s response to the mouse.  What will happen next?

[Pictures: The Tiger and the Bulls, wood engraving by Boris Artzybasheff;
The Lion, the Tiger, and the Fox, wood engraving by Artzybasheff;
The Leopard and the Fox, wood engraving by Artzybasheff;
The Lion and the Mouse, wood engraving by Artzybasheff, all from Aesop’s Fables by Artzybasheff, 1933).]

December 10, 2019

Santa's Workshop

        The folklore of Santa Claus, his predecessors, his counterparts in various cultures, and his assorted attributes, is a long and complicated topic.  Today I’m just going to look at the fantasy location where he lives and works.  Even this seemingly simple location has enough complication for one day.
        In my standard North American culture, I have always heard the story that Santa lives at the North Pole.  Question one is where that idea originated?  Like so much of our current image of Santa Claus, this may have been an invention of cartoonist Thomas Nast, in 1866.  At the very least, Nast’s illustrations accompanying a poem by George P. Webster in 1869, served to popularize the idea.  But why did he pick the North Pole?  Well, since the 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” people had known that Santa travels by reindeer sleigh, so he must live somewhere in the far north, and despite recent avidly-followed expeditions, no one had yet reached the North Pole, so it was still quite mysterious.  By 1879 Nast informed the world that Santa’s Workshop is specifically at the North Magnetic Pole, which at the time was situated on land.
Unfortunately for Santa, the magnetic pole is currently moving toward Siberia at approximately 34 miles per year, and is now at sea.  I suspect that most people don’t give much thought to these scientific niceties, and therefore think of Santa’s Workshop as being located at the Geographic North Pole.  Without getting too specific, the folklore probably assumes a small magical island that exists for the sole purpose of supporting Santa’s workshop, dwelling, and so on.  At any rate, this seems reasonable to me.
        Many countries with a Santa or equivalent figure, however, place his location within their own borders.  Canada, which has held the North Magnetic Pole until just about now, claims the postal code for the Workshop as H0H 0H0.  The USA claims that the address is 1225 Reindeer Rd, North Pole, Alaska 20190.  Norway places Santa’s Workshop in Drøbak, Finland places it in Korvatunturi, and Denmark places it near Uummannaq in Greenland.  This is interesting, because while it’s natural to think that countries might be proud to claim Santa Claus (Canada has even officially given him citizenship), it is an integral part of the lore that his location be somewhere far away, where ordinary people can never actually encounter it.
        As for the characteristics of Santa’s Workshop, it is primarily known as the place where toys are made by elves.  Just as the industrial revolution transformed the manufacture of other products, it transformed the legends surrounding Santa’s toy-making process.  Originally toys were manufactured by hand by skilled craftsmen, but Santa’s Workshop is now often portrayed as a modern factory with machines and assembly lines.  In addition to the toy factory, the facility must also include kitchens for cookies and other Christmas treats, stables for the reindeer, and homes for Santa and his family, as well as the elves who help with all the work.  It is snowy there, of course, with plenty of icicles, and often copious decoration in red-and-white candy cane stripes.
        The idea of Santa’s Workshop includes elements that appear in many other fantasy locations: the Utopia of Shangri-La, paradise in the midst of snow; the magic/magically-advanced technology of Atlantis; perhaps some of the greed of Eldorado, although people don’t search for it in order to take possession of its riches; and of course its physical location seems to be closest to Ultime Thule.  Whether you’ll be following the Santa-tracking radar this Christmas Eve, or scorn the whole over-commercialized schlock, it’s interesting to consider with what qualities we have invested this mythical place.

[Pictures: Visit the North Pole, poster design by Steve Thomas, 2010 (Image from Rocket Tours);
Santa Claus’s Route, wood engraving from illustration by Thomas Nast, 1885 (Image from ArtfulUnicorn);
The Trip of Santa Claus, illustration by Nast, 1892 (Image from Princeton University).]

December 7, 2019

Holiday Sales

        Once December hits, it’s all holiday shows all the time for artists.  This post is to let local friends know about three that I’ll be showing in - and it’s just a quick post because I have about half an hour before I need to leave for the first.  That’s the Gorse Mill Studios Holiday Sale.  Once again, another artist is generously letting me show in her studio since she won’t be able to be there today.  (The show is two days, but I will be there today only.)  They’re trying out something new, “Step Into Art” with some interactive installations.  My work is too small to fit into that theme much, but it sounds cool, and I will be offering to let visitors carve their own small rubber block, so you can at least step into being an artist!
        Also going on now is the holiday show at Gallery Twist in Lexington.  The opening reception is tonight, and it is going to be a beautiful, festive occasion.  I have three or four pieces on display, but the gallery is exploding with wonderful art, artfully displayed.  It’s worth seeing even if you can’t make the reception (like me, what with the Gorse Mill show today.)  The show will be up through January 1.
        And the third holiday show is next Saturday: the Needham Winter Arts Festival in Town Hall.  It usually has a nice diversity of vendors, from fine arts and charming crafts to hand-made soaps and gourmet foods.  That sale is also one day only.
        For more information about these shows, you can follow the links:
        Also, remember that if you are not local - or just can’t make it to any holiday shows - you can always check out my web site for available work, and contact me directly to arrange purchases.
        And now I have to get going!

December 3, 2019

Snow Day Already!

        Today is our first snow day of the school year (an early one, too), and that means it’s time to celebrate with block prints.  We’ll begin with what is probably my favorite of today’s collection, by Iain McNab (Scotland, 1890-1967).  I like the different textures of the carving.  This is a wood engraving, so you can note the use of a multi-line tool for the snow behind the bottom crotch of the tree.  A multi-line tool tends to give a much softer look than is possible with regular wood block carving tools.  I also like the various details in the picture, such as the woman’s umbrella and the laundry hung out even on a snowy day.  I doubt it’s drying very fast!  Our street can get quite bad when it snows, but if we look out our back window, across the back yards, to the busier street beyond, we can spy glimpses of how cars are driving there, and get a better idea of conditions over-all.  McNab’s scene reminds me of this, with its view to the next street over - but it looks pretty snowy on that street, too.
        Having just come in from shovelling our driveway, I am reminded of the advantages of a horse-drawn sleigh.  No need to shovel for the horse or the runners!  This scene by Herbert Pullinger (USA, 1878-1961) is reminiscent of all the old-fashioned “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” stereotypes.  It’s also an engraving, and you can once again see how fine are the lines in the background cross-hatching.  I especially like the variety of lines that make up all the trees and branches in the middle ground.
        Next up is a slightly more minimalist scene by Utagawa Hiroshige (Japan, 1797-1858).  The snow is suggested as much by the over-all color scheme (or lack-of-color scheme) than by any actual carving or details.  The vertical orientation makes this into a slice of a scene, and emphasizes the height of the bridge.  I worry that if the bridge is snowy, it might be quite slippery and difficult for the little person crossing!  Japanese wood blocks are inked with watercolors by brush rather than tackier inks by brayer, and in this piece the brushstrokes are visible in the grey background.  They add a very subtle texture.
        And finally a snowy house by Wharton Esherick (USA, 1887 - 1970), a contemporary of the first two artists featured today.  This is Esherick’s own house, and it fills the picture entirely, and goes right beyond the edges, which is an unusual composition.
        The snow has stopped falling here now, and I’ve cleared our own front steps, but we’re definitely looking like winter!

[Pictures: London Snow, wood engraving by Iain McNab, 1955 (image from National Galleries Scotland);
Walnut Lane Bridge, wood engraving by Herbert Pullinger, 1935 (Image from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts);
The Monkey Bridge in Winter, woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige, 19th century (Image from Art Institute of Chicago);
December, woodcut by Wharton Esherick, 1923 (Image from Wharton Esherick Museum).]

November 30, 2019

Words of the Month - Of Writing lllllllKS

        English has many oddities of spelling that derive from a wide variety of historical incidents and accidents.  Today we look at why a number of words that sound like they should be spelled with U are instead spelled with O.  The words in question include come, some, son, monk, tongue, honey, and worm.  If we were to spell them phonetically, they should be cum, sum, sun, munk, tung, hunny (to Winnie-the-Pooh’s satisfaction), and wurm.  And so they were spelled, more or less, in Old English.  Why the change?  A leading theory is that it came about because of the difficulty of deciphering handwriting.
        The Carolingian script used for European manuscripts in the ninth through thirteenth centuries is quite clear and legible, with nice, round, well-spaced letters.  It was also slow to produce and took up a lot of space on precious parchment.  The gothic or blackletter script developed from attempts to squish letters ever closer together, and make them quicker and easier to write with quill pens.  Letters were reduced as much as possible to short, vertical downstrokes with the pen, called minims, while curves or other penstrokes were minimized. 
Easier to write, however, meant harder to read.  The letters m, n, r, u, and v were each simply a series of minims.  To add to the mix, i was often written with no dot, and t didn’t extend upwards much beyond the others.  Put all that together, and a word like minim might end up looking like llllllllll (only with shorter strokes.  This is the best way I can reproduce the effect with typing.)   And that could equally be numin, or rumun, or mirum, or wurm…  So our Middle English words listed above would look something like ClllllE, flllllE, fllll, lllllllK, lllllG, HlllllG, and llllllllll (with S's that looked more like another fairly straight line: f).  Yikes!
        The solution, apparently, was to use an O instead of a U in common words when it came next to other letters composed of minims, thus making it easier to parse which letter was which.  Instead of lllllllK, write lllOllK, and it’s a lot easier to make out.  This scribal habit may also have turned wimman (lllllllllllAll) into woman, and the minim problem may also be the origin of the dots over I and J.  That dot is technically a tittle (from Latin titulus), and first began to appear as another way to differentiate among the mass of minims, while remaining comparatively quick and easy to write.
        The manuscript examples I have here are all in Latin, not Middle English, but they certainly serve to illustrate the gothic script, and how all the letters can begin to look the same.

[Pictures: Details from the “Alphonso Psalter,” 1284 (Images from The British Library);
Details from bestiaries, c1200-c1210; 1201-1225; 1201-1300 (Images from The British Library, Bodleian Libraries, Bibliotheque Nationale de France).]

November 26, 2019

Harvest Mice

        Here is a little collection of harvest mice, which seem appropriate for Thanksgiving even though we don’t have harvest mice in the US.  (Or at least not the standard kind.  Apparently there are some other species in the New World.)  My favorite first: I love the detail in this wood engraving by Rosamund Fowler.  The mouse’s soft fur, delicate toes, and clinging tail are all carefully portrayed, and there’s a nice contrast with the graphic pattern of the seed heads, punctuated by those that are solid black.
        Lynda Durrant’s web site says that she makes her linoleum prints with separate blocks, one for each color.  Looking at these charming mice, I’m seeing three: pale yellow, an ombre of oranges, and brown, with the white being the paper.  Given the arrangement of colors, it could be a reduction print, too.  But in any case, the autumnal colors would be perfect for seasonal decor, and I hope these little mice get their harvest done in time for Thanksgiving.
        This precariously perched mouse by Colin Blanchard has three or four shades of beige/brown, plus a touch of blue in the background and eye.  It is done with screen printing for “additional color” (presumably background colors), with linoleum block printing on top.  Despite its wonderfully prehensile tail, this harvest mouse looks a little alarmed at being up so high.  There is a feast of seeds up there, though, so presumably it’s worth it.
        And finally a whole scene, much more stylized than the others.  The mice look downright cartoony, but all the background plants are accurate enough to recognize their species.  There are also a few insects, as well as a nest.  Harvest mice make wonderful little woven pockets for their nests, and this one is a room with a beautiful view.  I like the riot of pattern in this busy meadow.
        Let the harvest mice inspire you to work hard, take care of yourself and those around you, and be grateful for all the blessings to be gathered in.  Happy Thanksgiving!

[Pictures: Harvest Mouse, wood engraving by Rosamund Fowler (Image from the artist’s web site);
Harvest Mice, lino block print by Lynda Durant (Image from Full Circle Design);
Harvest Mouse, linocut and screenprint by Colin Blanchard (Image from the artist’s web site);
Yare Valley Harvest Mice, linocut print by rockhen (Image from the artist’s Etsy shop).]

November 22, 2019

Cheesy Block-Printing Slogans

        Here’s a “shower thought” for the day (illustrated with a very nice bath block print instead).  It seems that every group of people, from those with shared national origins to those with shared hobbies, to groups with shared physical traits or skills or jobs, likes to come up with cheesy slogans to celebrate themselves.  Think of the “Old ____ never die, they just…” slogans, or “____ do it better.”  So I figured it was time for some cheesy block-printing slogans.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:
     Requisite: Old printmakers never die, they just limit their edition.
     Hip: I dig block prints.
     Rude: I’d love to stay, but I’ve got more pressing business.
     Celebratory: What a relief!
     Or the retro version: Carve carve, ink ink, oh what a relief it is!  (It would be better if it rhymed, but oh well.)
     Cheerful: I’ve got that inking feeling!
     Fanatic: Proud to be a blockhead.
     Dismissive: Why don’t you make a noise like a brayer and roll away.
     World-weary: Yeah, I’ve been around the block.  In fact, I carved the block.
     Collegial: Great minds ink alike.
     Modest: Printmakers make great first impressions.  And second impressions, and third impressions, and fourth impressions…

        Surely any art-loving punsters out there can help me out!  What would you put on a T-shirt to advertise your love of relief block prints?  Or your artistic medium of choice?  (And if you’re inclined to sneer about my stupid puns, you’d better reread my past post on paranomasia and the impressive brain-power involved.)

[Picture: Bath Time, lino block print by Claude Flight, first half of 20th century (Image from Gallery on the Usk).]

November 19, 2019

Picturing the Unseen

        There is a particular issue that comes up when illustrating fantasy, which is how to depict those things that are unseen: invisible, or never witnessed by human eyes.  It’s a contradiction that encompasses illustrators of dinosaurs, prehistoric personalities, and ancient cities, as well, but it hits fantasy and sci-fi illustrators particularly hard.  I think invisibility deserves its own post some day, so for now I’m thinking about drawing things that no one has ever seen.
        First, there are the things that, within the context of a story, are perfectly visible, such as dragons, time machines, or indeed any fictional person, place, or thing.  These cannot be drawn from life or copied from reference photos, so what’s an artist to do?  The more popular mythical things, such as dragons and fairies, have no shortage of previous depictions to be used for inspiration, but some creatures are entirely new.  The most common method for depicting fantastical things is the chimera approach: wings like a bat, tail like a snake, feet
like a raptor, and so on.  In other words, find something real that relates to it, and use that model just for the element to which it relates.  In many cases we have written descriptions to work from, as well.  Ultimately, however, there has to be a picture in the mind to be used for guidance, instead of a real object or photo.  All we have to do is imagine something, and then it can be drawn.
        What about things that even within the context of a story, no one has ever seen?  Some ghosts or spirits are supposed to be invisible, some objects are hidden away in utmost secrecy, some beings are veiled from mortal view by darkness, light, mist, or distance…  In these cases  we must make pictures that reveal nothing — Or we get caught in a contradiction.
        This is an illumination of the simurgh, a bird that this thirteenth century Persian bestiary tells us lives “in fastnesses never penetrated by man,” and hidden from view.  The marginal note is by a later reader, who wrote testily, “Thou fool, if nobody has seen the simurgh, then how dost thou portray it?”  It’s a fair point.  Here’s where an artist’s superpowers become evident: sometimes an illustrator is omniscient and can show you in lavish and loving detail what no mortal has ever seen.  I say, just go with it!
        For a satirical little poem about a never-seen microbe (with a picture, of course!) revisit this previous post.

[Pictures: 10. Landscape with Ruins and Cylinder Segments, wood block print by Lorenz Stöer, 1567 (Image from TU);
Drollery, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Simurgh, painting from Persian bestiary, c 1297-1300 (Image from The Morgan Library & Museum).]

November 15, 2019

Kitsunebi

        This color wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige (Japan, 1797-1858) is part of his series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.”  It illustrates a legend from the Oji area.  Every year on New Year’s Eve the kitsune fox spirits of the entire region gather around a famous, large enoki tree, bringing foxfire torches with them.  Kitsunebi, therefore, are those torches, which can be seen as ghost lights that mysteriously appear and disappear without explanation — or at least, with no explanation besides fox spirits.  The flames are said to be glowing breath of kitsune, or to be struck with their tails, or to be carried as torches.  Hiroshige has made his fox spirits glow more brightly than their fires in the winter dusk.
        The famous enoki tree is no longer standing, but apparently there is now a shrine somewhere near where it stood.

[Picture: Oji shozoku enoki omisoka no kitsunebi (Fox Fires on New Year’s Eve at the Changing Tree in Oji), color wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

November 12, 2019

Caricatures in Wood

        Aline Fruhauf (USA, 1907-1978) was primarily known as a caricaturist, and she worked in various media.  Here are a few of her caricatures that she made as wood block prints.  Relief printing seems like an odd medium for caricatures, which I usually think of as being very loose and spontaneous.  Indeed, Fruhauf’s woodcut portraits definitely have that look: simple lines, doodly shapes, little shading or patterns or details…  And yet they aren’t quite just reproducing the look of pen lines; there is enough roughness to remind us that wood was carved in the making of these pieces.
        The first is a portrait/caricature of Louis Michel Eilshemius, an American painter I confess I can’t recall ever having heard of before.  He looks wonderfully astonished, but in a quiet, non-demonstrative manner.  I
like the wrinkles on his sleeves, but most of all I love his curlicue eyebrows.
        The second one depicts Lord David Cecil, an author.  This one doesn’t have particularly interesting carving and is closest to looking like a simple drawing.
        We pass on, therefore, to the third, which is a self-portrait.  Although the depiction of the face is clearly a caricature, the inclusion of the shorebird decoy behind and the dog in front connects it a little more with traditional portraiture.  Fruhauf looks quite intent on the drawing she’s doing, her heavy eyebrows pressed together in concentration — but the snub nose and sharp little chin hint at a more impish personality.  This is also the carviest of the bunch, making more use of the wood block print medium’s ability to capture textures rather than simply reproducing outlines.
        I think these are fun.

[Pictures: Louis Michel Eilshemius, woodcut by Aline Fruhauf, 1974 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Lord David Cecil, woodcut by Fruhauf, 1973 (Image from liveuctioneers);
Self Portrait, woodcut by Fruhauf, undated, (Image from invaluable).]

November 8, 2019

Catching a Falling Star

        The famous song by John Donne (England, 1572-1631) is a fantasy poem only in the sense that it is so absurdly cynical as to be pure fantasy.  However, it refers to a number of fantastical themes, and has apparently exerted a strong pull on the imagination of several fantasy writers.

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

        The poem consists of lists of impossibilities, or fantasies, if you want to look at them that way.  For lovers of fantasy perhaps the appeal is that we do dream of catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing.  (As for impregnating a mandrake, I have to wonder whether that’s impossible because it’s a plant, or because you can’t get at it without its scream killing you.)  Fantasy writers do like to think of ourselves as being born to strange sights and things invisible to see, which perhaps explains why at least two authors have written books rooted in this poem.  Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is related to the poem primarily in that its action is set in motion by the protagonist setting off to catch a falling star.  There is a callback to the final stanza, however, in that by the time he returns with it to the woman he loves, he finds that she has been untrue.  Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones uses even more of the poem, with a series of episodes in which the various impossibilities of the poem occur, signalling the unravelling of a curse based on it.  There are probably numerous other references to this poem in fantasy works, which I either don’t know or am not remembering.  Put it in the comments if you think of any!
        As for Donne’s cynical point, I can attest that it’s fantasy, because I am sitting right here, and I am both true and fair.  So there.

[Pictures: The Great Comet of 1577, wood block print by Jiri Daschitzsky, 1577 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)  As a fun side note, today is the 422nd anniversary of the Great Comet of 1577 being reported by Japanese astronomers.  It was viewed by Tycho Brahe on November 13.
Mandrake root (female variety), wood block print from Ortus sanitatis printed by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Image from Internet Archive);
Delphin, wood block print from Historia aquatilium by Nicolaus Marschalk, 1520 (Image from Bodleian Rare Books).]

November 5, 2019

Of Leviathans and Copy Cats

        I’ve previously mentioned the fact that printing was invented before the concept of copyright, so early printers of books stole from each other with blithe abandon.  When you remember that before the printing press, the only way to get any book at all (short of composing one yourself from scratch) was to copy it, then you can understand that it took a while for the mindset to change.  So today I have for you a little demonstration of how this played out.
        In 1491 Jacob Meydenbach published Ortus (or Hortus) Sanitatis, the expansion of a 1485 herbal to include animals, birds, fish, and stones as well as plants.  You can note a few things from this page from that edition.  For one thing, it’s in Latin, as were most scholarly works.  Secondly, although the author (possibly Johann Wonnecke von Caub) was moving toward a scientific attitude and attempting to give accurate information about the uses of
plants and animals for medicine, the fact that this red and yellow monster is a leviathan shows that the author was still working with the bestiary tradition of finding information in religious works.  (To be fair, it’s hard to blame the Bible for this leviathan, which seems to live on land as much as water.)  Thirdly, note the hand coloring of the wood block illustrations.  Although crude, it was highly unusual for the time, making this a deluxe edition.  As for the blue and red ink in the text, I can’t tell whether that was printed or hand-painted.  At any rate, the book proved wildly successful…
        So successful, in fact, that in 1499 Johann Prüss of Strassburg thought he wouldn’t mind getting in on a little of the action, and he printed his own edition which, obviously, he simply copied from the earlier version.  Look at this leviathan entry and you notice right away that the layout  is different.  You can also see if you look a little more closely that the wood block illustration is different, as well, even though it was clearly copied from Meydenbach’s picture.  This leviathan has rolling hills in the background and very attractive decorative patterns on his spine plates, as well as an outline around the block.  Despite these minor differences, this would clearly be a flagrant copyright violation if such a thing as copyright violation had existed.
        In addition to straight-up copies, there were also translations, and in 1521 Laurence Andrew produced an abridged version in English entitled The Noble lyfe & natures of man, of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes.  Once again, he copied the previous illustrations.  Comparing his leviathan with the others you can see that it has a little more space above its tail, a medium amount of embellishment on its plates, and a little nick out of its tongue where the thin wood outline got carved away too much.  You can see that Andrew has also copied the illustrations of the next creature, called “lanificus,” which seems from the description to be something along the lines of a silkworm.
        So that’s all pretty straightforward, but this particular wood block print illustrates another habit of early printers, because… what’s this? 
That’s right, it’s the same block yet again - this time the exact same block - used again in the same 1521 edition by Andrew as the illustration for the dragon.  After all, having gone through all the work of copying and carving a block, it seems such a waste to use it for only one animal!

[Pictures: Leviathan, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis, Meydenbach edition, 1491 (Image from University of Cambridge);
Leviathan, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis, Prüss edition, 1499 (Image from Boston Public Library);
Leviathan, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man, by Laurence Andrew, 1521;
Dragon, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man, by Andrew, 1521 (Images from The Wellcome Trust).]

October 29, 2019

Words of the Month - Busy Be-

        Marie Antoinette was bewigged, bejeweled, beribboned, and beheaded.  I consider this one of my better bon mots, and what makes it interesting is that despite the same prefix on all four words, the queen was amply adorned with the wigs, jewels, and ribbons, but the head no longer adorned her at all.  So what’s going on here?
        The prefix be- most commonly means something like “to make a certain way, to cause a certain state, to provide with.”  Examples of this include
bewig, beribbon, bespectacle - meaning to provide with these accoutrements
bespatter, bedaub, befoul, becloud, - meaning not just to provide but to completely cover or surround with spattering, daubing, foulness, clouds…
becalm, befuddle, bewilder, betroth, benight, besot - to cause to be in the state of calm, fuddlement, wilderness, being pledged in troth, night’s darkness, sottedness…
bewitch, bedevil, becat - to cause to be in a state of being covered or surrounded, indeed
beset, by witchery, devils, the cat…  (You will not find becat in the dictionary, but it is a word in common use in our household.  “Can you please hand me my book?  I can’t get up because I’m becatted.”)
        There are also words in which be- seems to make a verb transitive, as in
begrudge, belabor, bemoan, bewail - in which you grudge something, labor at something, moan or wail about something…
        But none of these seems to cover behead.  One theory is that the be- in behead is “privative.”  In other words, rather than meaning “to provide with,” in this case it means “to deprive of.”  Far be it from me to say that the busy be- prefix can’t have multiple and even seemingly contradictory meanings - certainly there are other prefixes that do.  But this one seems a little odd to me, as I can’t think of a single other case of such a meaning.  So another theory is that be- is an intensifier (see the post on disgruntled for more on another intensifier).  If we take be- as an intensifier, then the verb head can be taken to mean “to remove the head” and behead means “seriously, the head was totally removed.” (See the posts on contronyms and controphonic synonyms for other verbs used in this way.)  This seems plausible because there are other examples in which be- can be interpreted as an intensifier, including
betray, berate, betroth, behave, bewilder, bedazzle - consider that these mean completely dazzling, being utterly lost in the wilds, being pledged solely and thoroughly, and so on…
        However, the be- in all of these words could also be explained simply with its other meanings, so I don’t know.  I think behead remains a bit of a mystery.

[Pictures: Maria Antoinetta, Queen of France, engraving by anon. British artist (Image from Smithsonian Institution);
Napping Cat, reduction block print by Jane Grant Tentas (Image from her Etsy shop JGTentas).]

October 25, 2019

Cities of Dreams

        I’ve been on a bit of an architecture kick, perhaps as a reaction to all those imaginary creatures.  One recent piece is a real building, which I’ll share some other time, but here are a couple of others, just as imaginary as the creatures, but with a refreshing dose of geometry.  There’s no particular rhyme or reason to these cities; they’re really just doodles of whatever struck my fancy, but I’ll share a few of the things I was thinking about.
     1. Variety is the spice of life.  I was enjoying trying to throw in a little of everything, but especially towers: steeples, skyscrapers, minarets, turrets, spires, from different architectural styles of different times and places…
     2. We’re better together.  I didn’t want the buildings separate, each on their own; I wanted them to be connected so that imaginary people can easily go from one to the next, visit their neighbors, attend events in any building, and really consider the whole city their home…
     3. Grey is beautiful.  I don’t have pre-made grey ink, but mix it from black and white.  For each of these pieces I had printed another black block first, and then added white ink without cleaning the plate and brayer in between.  As I printed each edition and added more and more white as I went along, the grey got lighter and lighter.  I found that I quite liked the very pale grey, like a mist (or perhaps a smog, but hopefully not!), but I also liked the variations.  You could try to make a matched set, or choose to pair different shades to keep things interesting.
     4. Everything’s better with dirigibles.  I knew right away I wanted the dirigible in the second city, partly to add a contrasting horizontal shape and partly to add a steampunk vibe, but also as evidence of inhabitants and movement.  When disembarking from the dirigible, you can slide down the long chute to the lower levels.  Or perhaps it’s got an escalator inside for those who like things a little more sedate, which would also make it possible to get up the same way.  But of course you can also use the elevator in the docking building.
        In a real city I’d definitely want trees, parks, and lots and lots of rooftop gardens, but these blocks were all about the straight lines and stark contrasts.  A major inspiration for the idea was an installation at the Tate Modern in London this summer “by” artist Olafur Eliasson, in which visitors were provided with 1000 kilograms of white Legos and invited to contribute whatever they wanted to the “Cubic Structural Evolution Project.”  Many of the elements listed above were present in this collaborative art project: huge variety of unrelated architectural styles, ad hoc connections between structures, and monochromatic palette.  But no dirigibles.

[Pictures: City I, rubber block  print by AEGN, 2019;
City II, rubber block  print by AEGN, 2019;
T at Olafur Eliasson’s Cubic Structural Evolution Project, photo by AEGN, 2019.]