December 12, 2017

Happy Hanukkah

        Hanukkah begins tonight, in honor of which here are a couple of wonderful wood block prints from an eighteenth century book of customs.  As far as I can make out from confusing citations, these wood block prints are from the same book, printed in Amsterdam in Hebrew and/or Yiddish and Spanish.  First, a man lighting a truly epic Hanukkah menorah.  I certainly don’t know anyone with a menorah this big in their home!  Interestingly, this one seems to have only the eight daily lights, not a ninth “servant” light, but the man is using his spills or candles double-fisted, apparently for maximum menorah-lighting speed and power.  I like the way the checkerboard floor pattern sets the stage and gives some perspective and interest to the scene.
        Secondly, a very handsome illustration of a man blowing a shofar.  We have the same checkered floor and diamond-paned windows, which give some nice texture to the scene.  This time we have a small crowd of other people, and what looks like an open book.  The text or musical notation in the book is carved as simple zig-zagged lines.  Generally speaking, these wood block prints would be considered pretty crude, but I think they have an appealing vigor, and the first man in the crown, behind the shofar-blower, has a quite nicely detailed face.
        For those who celebrate Hanukkah, may it be a happy one!

[Pictures: Man lighting a Hanukkah menorah, wood block print from Sefer HaMinhagim, 1768 (Image from LiveAuctioneers);
Man blowing a shofar, wood block print from Sefer HaMinhagim, 1767-8 (Image from Yale University Library).]

December 8, 2017

Don Quixote

        I’m going to see a performance of “Man of La Mancha” this weekend, so here are a collection of wood block prints illustrating the supremely famous Don Quixote.  “Man of La Mancha” is not just any old adventure; it’s about seeing the world not as it is, but as it ought to be.  Admittedly, Don Quixote is nuts, and his illusions about the world are certainly not always helpful or even inspiring.  Nevertheless, in the musical adaptation Don Quixote’s fantasies (with the sense of delusions) definitely have a lot in common with my sort of fantasy (with the sense of speculative fiction).  That is, by inviting people to think in new, unconventional ways, both fantasies provide hope, creativity, and the possibility of making the world a better place.
        Don Quixote has been an incredibly popular subject for artists, which is hardly surprising, given his status as a symbol of people who live in their
imaginations.  I’ve had a tough time winnowing down the possibilities to a manageable number, but here are some of my relief print favorites.  We begin with one especially suited to “Man of La Mancha,” with its story-within-a-story about Cervantes imagining his characters.  We follow up the image of the fictional characters in Cervantes’s imagination with an image of the fictional characters in Don Quixote’s imagination.  I love the dreamy look in his eyes and the way it’s the pages of the open book that illuminate the world.  Note, too, how Don Quixote holds the pages of the book with separate fingers, marking favorite passages to refer back to.  It’s a nice detail.
        And so Don Quixote sallies forth in two very different styles of wood block print.  The first, a very traditional wood block reproduction of a drawing, shows Quixote looking quite overwhelmed by the world, while the horse Rocinante just looks resigned.  It’s a fun, whimsical depiction, with lots of personality.  The second is too rough, and the figures too distant to have any facial expressions, but the carving itself is very expressive.  It looks like a hot, dry, rough land indeed, and you can sympathize with Sancho’s - and the horse’s - resignation about their master’s whims.
        I certainly couldn’t fail to include a couple of illustrations of the most famous episode of all: tilting at windmills.  This is one of the most popular scenes for artists to depict, and it’s obvious why it would be more interesting to
compose than a picture of a bloke just sitting on a horse.  The illustration by George Cruikshank has his characteristic humor, with Quixote and horse lifted right up in the air, while Sancho and the other bystanders watch in horrified amazement.    The next illustrations show the aftermath, Gustav Doré’s famous version continuing the comedy with all six victims’ legs ridiculously up in the air.  The other takes a more sober approach, in which knight and charger will soon be able to drag themselves to their feet and set off once more.
        Finally, I include a couple of bookplates featuring Don Quixote.  It turns out that Don Quixote was an incredibly popular theme for bookplates during the golden age of hand-carved exlibris, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  Again, what better symbol for book lovers than the man whose favorite books consumed his entire brain?  The first is a charming image of Don Quixote reading while driving, with some nice little touches, such as the flowers on his lance.  The second is an interesting modernist take in which the famous windmill looks more like a huge machine turbine and Don Quixote really looks quite strong and competent like one of Ferdinand Leger’s workers.
        There were plenty of pictures I had to leave out in order to keep this post to a manageable length, and while most were very traditional, a few took the imagery in some interesting - or strange - directions.  But however you picture Don Quixote, it’s worth considering: what is that balance between seeing the world as it is, and imagining it as it could be?  Between practicality and dreaming the impossible dream?

[Pictures: Cervantes imagining his characters, wood block print by Enric Cristófol Ricart, 1933 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote reading a romance, wood block print by Pavel Šimon, first half of 20th century (Image from TFSimon);
Quelle joie, illustration by Jean-Ignace-Isodore Gérard Grandville reproduced as wood engraving by Barbant, 1848 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote’s second sally, wood block print by Hans Alexander Mueller, 1923 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote and the windmill, illustration by George Cruikshank reproduced as wood engraving by Sears and William Hughes, 1824 (Image from Texas A&M);
Adventure of the windmills, illustration by Vicente Urrabieta Ortiz reproduced as wood engraving by Sierra, 1873 (Image from Texas A&M)
Miséricorde! illustration by Gustave Doré reproduced as wood engraving by Héliodore Joseph Pisan, 1863 (Image from Texas A&M);
Bookplate with Don Quixote reading, wood block print by Herbert S. Ott (Image from Art-Exlibris);
Bookplate with Don Quixote attacking a windmill, wood block print by Anatolij Kalaschnikow, 1967 (Image from Art-Exlibris).]

December 5, 2017

The Magic of Books

        Having mentioned last week the long, deep connection between writing and magic, this is a good time to share with you the inimitable Carl Sagan’s take on the matter.

        What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

        I am of the Carl Sagan “Cosmos” generation, a middle schooler when the show aired, watching it each week on PBS with my family.  (My children don’t even understand the concept of watching a television show when it airs!)  I confess that what I chiefly remember about “Cosmos” was how silly the dandelion spaceship looked, and Sagan counting like a whale: “Whoop!  Haw haw haw haw haw…”  So it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I remember and was inspired by this particular statement about books.  Still, I can’t imagine that it didn’t please me at the time, seeing what an avid lover of reading, writing, and books I was.
        At any rate, much of our reading nowadays is not done with paper books made from trees, but that doesn’t change the magic.  Indeed, is it not even a further height of magic that we can now send those funny dark squiggles instantaneously through the aether, to carry thoughts from mind to mind?  Never doubt that there is magic in the world!  Now let us be sure that we use the magic for good, not evil.

[Picture: Flights of Fancy, painting by James Gurney, 1996 (Image from Ideas Made of Light).]
Quotation from Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 11, 1980.

December 1, 2017

Now Showing

        Everywhere I go, I keep my eyes open for beautiful scenes and interesting things.  When I’m close to home or in “ordinary” places, I try to find the beauty that might be overlooked because of familiarity, and when I’m in more popularly acclaimed places, I try to look for unique details or less common perspectives.  Yesterday I hung a solo show called “Around the World,” featuring twenty-five pieces depicting buildings, animals, scenes, and other details from ten states and eight countries.  The pieces represent things that appealed to me on my travels, so they are both personal records of my own treasured journeys and universal celebrations of iconic places around the world.  Each image is an invitation to visitors to the show to reminisce on their own travels, imagine new destinations, and notice and appreciate anew the places they visit every day.
        Today I started putting up my display for this weekend’s Mother Brook Open Studies.  I’ll have to finish setting up tomorrow morning because I’m working down to the wire completing my preparations this time.  It should be a great event, though, with a wide variety of really interesting work, and demonstrations and activities, all in a single convenient location, a former school building in Dedham, MA.
        If you stop by the Wellesley Free Library, be sure to leave me a comment in the visitor’s book, and if you can make it to Mother Brook Open Studios, be sure to say hello.  I’m in room 8 on the first floor.

[Pictures: Wellesley Free Library Lobby Gallery, 2017.]

November 28, 2017

Words of the Month - The Glamour of Grammar

        For anyone with a taste for linguistics, it’s easy to see that grammar is glamorous, but not everyone may realize that these words are not only connected, but connected in their magical power.  Let’s start with grammar.  From Latin, from Greek, this word originally comes from the word for the art of letters, or writing.  You can see the same root in telegram and hologram, as well as its alternate form in autograph, cryptography, calligraphy, and many more.  In English the word grammar referred only to Latin grammar until the sixteenth century, except that originally it also referred to all sorts of knowledge, especially occult knowledge and magic.  After all, those same Latin scholars often studied the protosciences such as alchemy and astrology.  Even without that, the connection between writing and magic is long and deep.  To those of us who take reading and writing for granted, writing may not seem anything out of the ordinary, but as Svarnil reminds Jiriya in Sleeping Legends Lie, writing is magic to those who cannot do it, and for most of history, that was most people.  Writing, a powerful ability wielded by an elite few, has been considered to be magic in many cultures.
        An early fourteenth century variant of grammar, gramary or gramarye, was revived by Sir Walter Scott in its meaning of “magical arts”, and Scott (1771-1832) is also responsible for the introduction of glamour to mainstream English.  Glamour was a Scottish dialectal word, a variant of the archaic gramary, and it meant “a spell or enchantment, especially an illusion.”  It was most common in the phrase “to cast a glamour.”  The meaning “magical beauty, alluring charm” dates back to 1840.  After all, making something more attractive has to be one of the most popular uses of magic and illusion.
        A grammar can also be the book that lays out the rules of a language, and naturally when grammar could mean “occult knowledge”, seventeenth century French developed the word into grimoire, a textbook of magic or a book of spells.  English borrowed this word in 1849.
        Nowadays you’re unlikely to run into the word grimoire, or the magical meanings of gramarye and glamour, unless you’re reading fantasy.  Nevertheless, it’s always wise to remember that there is a glamour to grammar.  Language does indeed have the power to perform magic: everything from casting illusions both good or evil, to changing the very substance of the world.

[Pictures: wood block print from The Owl’s Almanac by Thomas Middleton, 1618 (Image from Morbid Anatomy);
Pentacles from The Key of Solomon, 1889 edition of a text dating to the Renaissance (Image from Internet Archive).]

November 24, 2017


        Having glorified pie in my last post, today seems a good day to look at how a handful of artists have explored the theme of gluttony in block prints.  Not surprisingly, series of prints depicting the seven deadly sins were more popular five hundred years ago, but nevertheless, there’s an interesting diversity in the way the vice has been personified or represented.
        We begin with a fat belly and a long neck, the latter on the theory that having a long neck would allow you to enjoy your food all the way down, and the former on the theory that you’ve already eaten too much.  The birds are also apparently traditional symbols of gluttony, so clearly in the sixteenth century the phrase “to eat like a bird” would have meant something very different.
        Nowadays the animal that most symbolizes gluttony is the pig, and that was true back in the sixteenth century, too.  This comfortably plump woman is standing beside a pig, and holding a goblet and a pack of cards.  Despite the flames (hellfire?) around her feet, she doesn’t look nearly so badly off compared with today’s gluttons gorging on burgers and booze.  This twenty-first century image by James Todd includes the figure of death.  After all, they are deadly sins, aren’t they?
        Some artists choose to imagine an embodiment of the vice itself, instead of the people who indulge in it, coming up with monsters of gluttony.  Hans Baldung’s monster looks avidly grasping, which seems plausible although it’s a different twist from the big bellies of our previous depictions.  Certainly it looks like something you’d want to stay away from.
        And then there’s this straight up what-the-heck-? scene based on Bruegel’s work.  This piece is dense with allegory, and while the pig, the people guzzling from jugs, and the little man carrying his belly on a wheelbarrow are all perfectly straightforward, who knows what’s up with the windmill in the shape of a man’s head, the bagpipes slung over the tree, or the buildings on fire way in the background.
        Gluttony can literally kill you in the form of addictions to drink or drugs, and all the health problems correlated with obesity, but that’s not why the deadly sins are called deadly.  The idea is that gluttony is deadly to the spirit.  How are we prone to gluttony now?  And do any of these prints still serve to illustrate that spiritual danger in a meaningful way?

[Pictures: Gourmandie (Gluttony), wood block print from Emblemata by Alciatus, 1549 (Image from Sensory Studies);
Fresikeit (Gluttony), wood block print by Hans Burgkmair the Elder, c 1510 (Image from The British Museum);
The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, woodcut by James Todd, 2010 (Image from Matrix Press);
Fressery (Gluttony), detail from wood block print of all seven sins by Hans Baldung Grien, 1511 (Image from Red Baron’s Blog);
Gula (Gluttony), engraving by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558 (Image from The Met).]

November 21, 2017

Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

        Here’s a lavish edition of Lydia Maria Child’s classic 1844 poem about Thanksgiving, illustrated with wood block prints.  Yes, I’m always thankful for block prints!
        I’m one of those who learned the song with “woods” and “Grandmother’s house,” but I’m also one of those who lived in a place where snow at Thanksgiving was not all that unusual.  I only ever really knew the first and third verses, but had I known that in the fifth stanza Grandmother says, “The children are here, bring a pie for everyone” I would have found that quite inspirational!
        As for these wood block prints by Christopher Manson, they have that lovely punch of black  carved wood over painted color.  These illustrations are set in the original era, with period clothing and architecture to go with the old-fashioned references in the lyrics.  I like the texture of the snow and trees, and the border around the picture.  The book also has attractive endpapers with these lovely Thanksgiving baskets, a pleasing little block print, and a nice design detail.

        Then there’s the boy inspecting the pie, and as I alluded to earlier, Thanksgiving is all about the pies.  I can identify with this boy.  Turkey?  Whatever.  Pie is where it’s at.  Manson’s little vignette captures the warmth and glow of a kitchen with hearth and oven for that crucial baking.
        If you’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving this week, may you have much joy in family, friends, and food.  Especially pies.

[Pictures: Illustrations from Over the River and Through the Wood, colored wood block prints by Christopher Manson, 1993.]

November 17, 2017

Zofrea's Harvest

        As we near Thanksgiving, here’s a wood block print of the harvest.  Salvatore Zofrea (Italy/Australia, b. 1946) has a distinctive technique in which his white figures have a black outline and a white outline.  Clearly he first carves an outline of every shape regardless of whether it will eventually be up against a white or a black background.  He then goes on to carve out white areas, carefully leaving their black outlines, thus giving them that double border.  In this harvest piece there is an over-all texture of lines for the long stalks, growing, cut, gathered, fallen… everywhere.  It certainly looks like hard work.
        I’ve included a second piece by Zofrea that I especially like, entitled “My mother’s hands.”  I love how well the sketchy texture of the carving makes accurate details of wrinkles, veins, and skin.  The close focus on the hands laid in the lap is quite lovely.  This comes from a series of pieces illustrating the artist’s life.
        These are actually quite large pieces, for woodcuts.  The harvest scene is 60x90 cm (24x 36 in).  Seeing only small images on-line, it’s hard for me to get a sense of the impact they would have in person, at full size.  Still, better a small view than none at all!

[Pictures: Harvesting, from the series Capricornia, woodcut by Salvatore Zofrea, 1989;
My mother’s hands, from the suite Appassionata, woodcut by Zofrea, 1994-9 (Images from Art Gallery NSW).]

November 14, 2017

Moore's Moyle and More

        It’s time for some more fantasy poetry, and today I’m looking at Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish Romantic poet.  Like many of the Romantics, his work can be appallingly overwrought, as in this verse I discovered when researching my hercinia.  It’s an excerpt from a "Dream of Antiquity” (c. 1804).  You can note the reference to hercinias, if you can get that
far through the densely self-conscious poetickness.

And now the fairy pathway seemed
To lead us through enchanted ground,
Where all that bard has ever dreamed
Of love or luxury bloomed around.
Oh! 'twas a bright, bewildering scene--
Along the alley's deepening green
Soft lamps, that hung like burning flowers,
And scented and illumed the bowers,
Seemed, as to him, who darkling roves,
Amid the lone Hercynian groves,
Appear those countless birds of light,
That sparkle in the leaves at night,
And from their wings diffuse a ray
Along the traveller's weary way.

        Having read this I was wondering why on earth Moore was famous.  Then I saw that he was also the author of many of the classic sentimental Irish songs including “The Minstrel Boy,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” and “Believe Me if All those Endearing Young Charms.”  So that explained his fame, but didn’t qualify him for a blog post about fantasy poetry.  And then I saw that he was also the author of “The Song of Fionnuala,” (c. 1808) and here he is!  For the fantasy background, you need to know that this poem refers to Fionnuala, one of the four Children of Lir, a sea god of Irish mythology.  The mother of Lir’s children was a daughter of the king of the gods, and when she died her father sent Lir another of his daughters as a replacement.  Unfortunately, this second one was jealous of Lir and his children and cursed the four children into swans for 900 years.  For 300 of those years they had to live on the Sea of Moyle.  Here’s the first verse.

Silent, oh Moyle, be the roar of thy water, 
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose! 
While, murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter 
Tells to the night-star her tale of woes. 
When shall the swan, her death-note singing, 
Sleep with wings in darkness furl'd? 
When will heaven, its sweet bells ringing, 
Call my spirit from this stormy world? 

        Okay, you may still be wondering what’s so great about this, but I first encountered it at the impressionable age of 9.  I liked the tragic drama of the fairy tale, but I fell in love with the alliteration.  Read it aloud with a little emotion and see if all that smooth, wonderfully interlocked alliteration doesn’t thrill you!  Of course, Moore also has rhyme to add to the mix, making the words flow together even more voluptuously.  Quite simply, this was the sort of stuff that turned me into a life-long lover of poetry and fantasy both.

[Pictures: Swan Feather, wood engraving by Colin See-Paynton;
Quietude of Swans, wood engraving by See-Paynton (Image from Colin See-Paynton’s web site).]