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).]