November 27, 2020

Word of the Month - Pangram

        Here’s a piece I finished at the beginning of the month, representing the most famous pangram in the English language: The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.  This is a small piece, and really just a mild amusement.  However, in the planning of it I got sucked down the rabbit hole of which dog breeds are the laziest, and also the rabbit hole of pangrams in other languages.  A pangram is a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, with as few repetitions as possible.  A perfect pangram would have no repetitions at all, which really isn’t possible in English (unless you cheat with abbreviations or other non-words), but languages that write with syllabaries have it much easier in this regard.  They have more elements to work with, and don’t have to worry about the constant need for additional vowels.  I learned that Japanese has some amazing pangrams, including a famous poem that has been used as the equivalent of alphabetical order!
        Back in English, the quick brown fox is first mentioned in The Boston Journal in 1885, but the context (“A favorite copy set by writing teachers for their pupils”) implies that the sentence was already well known, at least in typing-teacher circles.  In addition to typing and shorthand practice, the jump of the brown fox and lazy dog were the first message sent to test the Moscow-Washington hotline between the USA and USSR governments in 1963, they show up in cryptography tests, and they are widely used to display fonts.  Although the fox and dog are the most famous pangram, they are, at 33 letters, not the shortest.  In my opinion, the best one with only 28 letters (the shortest English has without cheating) is Waltz, bad nymph, for quick jigs vex.  I am also particularly pleased by the 29-letter Sphinx of black quart, judge my vow.
        If you like this sort of thing, I highly recommend the book Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, which is a very cleverly written fable about authoritarianism, in which letters of the alphabet are successively banned, and the characters have to speak and write in ever more convoluted ways to avoid the forbidden letters.  It centers on the supposed divinity of the fictional inventor of the famous pangram, although they use the version The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, which has 35 letters.  While a pangram uses all the letters of the alphabet, writing in which one or more letters is purposely omitted, as in Dunn’s novel, is called a lipogram.
        As for my illustration of the momentous leap forever immortalized in the English language, it simply struck me as a fun little block to carve and print.  It’s been hard to feel very ambitious in this ninth month of everything-cancelled, but I am very grateful to be able to make the occasional small piece that cheers me up.

[Picture: Pangram, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020.]

November 23, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 3

         It’s time for another round of everyone’s favorite game!  This one is a little different because unlike most of our creatures, the craziness of today’s beast is not the standard medieval portrayal.  It appears to be the rather random personal interpretation of the illustrator of a copy of Der naturen bloeme from the first quarter of the fourteenth century.  I cannot read the medieval Dutch text to see whether there’s any clue as to why this illuminator thought the beast should look like this, and I certainly can’t think of any reason in the usual descriptions of the creature.  So, being forewarned that it’s random, make your guess!

November 18, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 2

         Now you know how to play the game, so here’s another illustration for you to identify.  This one comes from a manuscript of Der Naturen Bloeme dating to about 1450-1500, a relatively late copy of a work, an encyclopedia of natural history, that was written about 200 years earlier, based on another work even older than that.  Such is the way of medieval books.  What I like best about this creature is how very happy it is.  It looks just a little mischievous, but in the most good-natured possible way.  What creature is this cheerful fish-thing meant to be?  Make your guess, and then…

November 13, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 1

         I have a new game for you to play, which will be fun for all.  It’s true that it doesn’t feature block prints, and its connection to fantasy is only the sort of inadvertent fantasy spawned by the wild imaginations of ignorant medieval illuminators.  Nevertheless, it amuses me, and I thought it might amuse you.  So without further ado, let’s get started.  Round 1!
        Here is an illustration from a manuscript that was completed in 1471 and resides in the collection of the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The book relates characters from the gospels to the saints and the Old Testament, but along with this content there are bonus illustrations providing a bestiary cycle along the bottoms of the pages.  I have censored the places in the image where the illustration is labelled, just in case you are someone who would look for a clue in the medieval Latin.  So, what are these charming, furry, blue critters?

November 9, 2020

Here's Something Cool: Sneinton Dragon

         This magnificent dragon sculpture glowers over Sneinton, a suburb of Nottingham, England.  It is stainless steel, and was created in 2006 by craftsman Robert Stubley (he hesitates to call himself an artist, having been a welder by trade).  Stubley had made a few other dragon sculptures previously, apparently just for fun, but was never trained as an artist.  He’s obviously a natural.  He says, “I thought, ‘I’ll have a go at making a dragon in my spare time.’  So I made one and I just got carried away with it then, thinking, ‘How can I use this medium, stainless steel, and how can I form it, and how can I get the results that I want?’”
        Residents of Sneinton were polled as to what sort of public art they’d like, and they chose a dragon.  This may refer to the history of Sneinton, because in 1914 social historian Robert Mellors wrote, “For more than half a century there has existed in certain parts of Nottingham a monster who has devoured in the first year of their lives a large number of infants… His name is SLUM.”  On the other hand, perhaps people requested a dragon sculpture simply because dragons are cool!
        I have not been to Sneinton to see this dragon myself, but it looks most excellent.  Its wingspan is 15 or 16 feet, and it has a lovely variety of texture, from rough scales to gleaming wings.  I wish my town would put up a cool dragon sculpture like this!

[Pictures: Sneinton Dragon, stainless steel sculpture by Robert Stubley, 2006 (Photographs by KevS from Wikimedia Commons and Tracey Whitefoot from Atlas Obscura).]

November 4, 2020

Honzo Zufu

         Honzo Zufu is a botanical book by Iwasaki Tsunemasa (Japan, 1786-1842), a botanist (among other studies) and samurai.  I gather that he is also the artist who made the gorgeous and scientifically accurate illustrations throughout the book — thousands of illustrations, as the book contains something like 92 volumes.  There is, however, not a lot of available information about this book, and what I could find gave me a fair bit of uncertainty.  Apparently the early volumes were produced in 
wood block print, although sources are contradictory as to whether they were color prints, or black-ink-only prints watercolored afterwards.  Later volumes were originally produced in watercolor, but then it may be that the entire thing was reproduced in wood block print after Iwasaki’s death, but I could not find any versions of that edition on-line.
        But uncertainty is not something any of us needs more of right now, so don’t worry about all that.  What we need is a bit of beauty, and that’s why I picked these pieces to share today.  These particular pieces are all wood block prints, and the really flashy flowering plants appear in the later volumes illustrated in watercolor, but in some ways these quieter plants are more soothing.  Certainly you can admire how Iwasaki arranged his compositions to show off even relatively plain plants to best effect.  He’s one of the few people I know who ranks with Maria Sybilla Merian in presenting science with true artistry, although I don’t know whether he made any scientific discoveries (as Merian did) or simply compiled and presented current knowledge.
        One of the things I find particularly appealing is the way the two-page spreads are used.  Even though each page has its own frame, the plants cross the divide.  Sometimes that’s because a plant is spread wide (or tall, although I haven’t included any with that composition) across the full space, but even when the two pages are devoted to separate plants, as in the third and fourth pictures here, Iwasaki still makes sure to bring some leaves across the divide to unify the spread.  This is very different from, say, Merian or comparable European art.
        My ability to tell you more about the book or the plants themselves is limited by my inability to read Japanese, so while I can identify many of the plants, I don’t know them all.  Just click on the pictures to make them bigger, breathe deeply, and enjoy.

[Pictures: Something in the legume family, Plate 17, Volume 5;

Ferns, Pl. 5, Vol. 6;

I don’t know what, Pl. 14, Vol. 6;

Spider lilies, Pl. 35, Vol. 7;

I don’t know what, Pl. 26, Vol. 8, all from Honzo Zufu by Iwasaki Tsunemasa, c 1828-1844 (All Images from National Diet Library).]

October 30, 2020

Words of the Month - Eggcorns and Folk Etymologies

         It is not uncommon that when someone hears (or mis-hears) a word with an unfamiliar element, they may reinterpret the word to one that makes more sense to them.  Eggcorn was an example of this, a misinterpretation of acorn, cited by a linguist in 2003, which then gave the phenomenon its name.  Although eggcorns spring from ignorance, they often exhibit a certain amount of creativity in order to come up with a new, more “logical” interpretation of an unknown word or phrase.  Some examples I’ve encountered include
    rod iron instead of wrought iron
    for all intensive purposes instead of for all intents and purposes
    one foul swoop instead of one fell swoop
    tow the line instead of toe the line
    I could of instead of I could have
    hay-day instead of hey-day
        You can see that some of these are due to the presence of archaic words (wrought, fell) that some speakers aren’t familiar with, but others seem to be simply misinterpretation.  Eggcorn phrases can also occur when speakers take a phrase all-of-a-lump and fail to consider the actual meaning of the words.  For example
    I could care less instead of I could not care less
    no certain terms instead of no uncertain terms
and even nip it in the butt instead of nip it in the bud!
        For more examples and related phenomena, check out prior posts on Mondegreens, Back-Formations, Ghost Words, Sneaky Critters, and The Curse of the Wandering N.
        Eggcorns are generally understood to be errors (except, perhaps by their speakers), but what happens when they become widespread?  Eventually they can become accepted as proper words, and then it’s called folk etymology.  Again, the changes often exhibit a certain logic, though it can be a bit of a stretch.
    andiron originally came from Old French andier, but it made so much more sense that it should somehow be related to iron.

    crayfish/crawfish were crevis in Middle English, but somewhere along the way people interpreted the word as including fish, since they live in the water and all.

    helpmate came originally from the King James Bible’s phrase “a help meet for him,” meaning “a helper appropriate or equal to him.”  This phrase was first misinterpreted to take help-meet as a helpful partner, at which point folk etymology deemed mate to be a more logical word in the context.
    muskrat originally came from Algonquian musquash, but both musk and rat seemed far more reasonable to describe this rodent that does indeed secrete musk.

    chaise lounge originally came from the French chaise longue, but while not everyone would know that longue meant “long”, everyone certainly knows that it’s something you lounge on.
    female was originally from Latin femella, a diminutive for woman (femina).  In the late 14th century it was erroneously reinterpreted to relate to male (which, by the way, also derived from a diminutive, of Latin mas).
    hey-day was originally an exclamation, and may have gained its meaning of “high point” or “time of greatest achievement” through a folk etymology association with high day, which changed the ending to day, but didn’t change the spelling of the hey.
        The language is chock full of examples of folk etymology (including belfry gaining its bell, shamefaced gaining its face, dormouse gaining its mouse, and witch hazel gaining its witch).  They began as errors but eventually became fully accepted as correct.  Will “rod iron” be next?  I hope not, because I think wrought is a particularly lovely word, but language is one of the few places where enough wrongs do indeed make a right.  Only time will tell.

[Pictures: Detail of Quercia (oak), wood block print by Giorgio Liberale, from I discorsi by Mattioli, 1568 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Crayfish, color wood block print by Yochijiro Urushibara, c 1920 (Image from Victoria & Albert);

Rococo chaise longue, illustration from Nordisk familjebok, 1905 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

October 26, 2020

The Dance of Death Continues

         Looking for illustrations for last week’s Ghost of John reminded me of the Dance of Death, aka Totentanz, aka Danse Macabre, that fifteenth and sixteenth century allegory of death’s universal power.  Go back and read my previous post, focussing on Hans Holbein’s famous Totentanz…  Okay, now that you’re brushed up on the history, today I wanted to look at how artists have continued to revisit the theme in modern times.
        It shouldn’t be surprising that the Totentanz experienced its first renaissance since the Renaissance around the time of the First World War, particularly in Germany, where it was part of the cultural heritage, and where Death indeed seemed to be everywhere.  While clearly influenced by the traditional fifteenth century woodcuts, Otto Wirsching (Germany, 1889-1919) put a distinctly modern spin on his interpretation, both in content and style.  Wirsching’s series includes 9 scenes plus a title page scene, of which I have two for you today.  “Death in the Street” is more traditional in the sense of depicting Death coming for an everyday person, in this case a lower class loafer.  Death, of course, brings a gun, and in the background you can see a soldier with a bayonet and destroyed buildings.  The second piece is a little more interesting, entitled “Death with One who Stayed Behind.”  Here a wealthier man appears to be standing in a sort of museum, watching troops march by on the street while he stays safely inside.  The sign on the mounted skeleton reads “Do Not Touch,” which is clearly the man’s attitude to the war.  But Death is there with him anyway; those who thought they could keep out of it will be affected just the same.
        Working shortly after the end of World War I, Robert Budzinski (Germany, 1874-1955) goes for a comic interpretation.  In his series of 8 woodcuts, Death comes for a young woman, but when he tries to lead her away in dance, she dances with him so vigorously that she breaks him to pieces.  Budzinski seems to be both commenting on women’s new power, exemplified by wartime work, suffrage, and the “flapper” model, but also reflecting the post-war spirit of reckless exuberance in the short-lived Weimar Jazz Age.  The three pieces I have here are 4, 7, and 8 in the series.
        My next Totentanz is from 1966, by HAP Grieshaber (Germany, 1909-1981).  This portfolio includes 40 woodcuts, each of which uses at least three colors.  Although Grieshaber includes some modern scenes, he also returns to a large panoply of traditional nobility and high church dignitaries.  I’ve included a few of each.  A lot of the pieces also seem relatively straightforward in terms of iconography: simply a skeleton standing with a person.  Some, however, are more interesting.  The beige pope, for example, is kissing Death’s ring, acknowledging Death as a higher authority.  On the bottom row I get a kick out of Death dressed as a secretary or courier, no doubt saying, “Message for Mr Kaufman,” in his blandest voice.  Death is coming up to the councilor in the center row with his arms and ribcage resembling a large clock, which is interesting.  Death doesn’t care that your busy schedule is full of important places to go and things to do; when he says it’s time, it’s time.  I picked the green doctor because I especially like the background of the operating room, and I picked the orange queen just because I like the colors and patterns.  Grieshaber lived through both world wars, but this major series was undertaken as a reaction to a heart attack, giving him a reminder of his own mortality.
        Finally, I have an example from the present, by Kreg Yingst (USA).  His series includes 10 pieces, and unfortunately I don’t have titles for them.  They are clearly in modern settings (a classroom, a concert, a factory, even an ironic Halloween Party) but without titles we may lose some nuance of the artist’s intention.  At any rate, Yingst seems to be returning to the traditional motifs of people going about their lives, with Death arriving to become part of the scene.  I’ve chosen to show you a basketball game, which I enjoy because of the interesting and dramatic view from above, and an emaciated model or actress with death peering out of her dressing room mirror.
        For most of modern history we in the developed world, particularly the privileged art-patrons, have not felt the same immanence of death that originally gave rise to the Totentanz genre.  Yes, everyone will die eventually, but in fact most of us expect to live for a decent span.  During World War I, however, we were once again plunged into a world in which death was everywhere and no one was safe.  Since then the idea has been revisited by pacifists highlighting the horrors of war, cynics pointing out the hypocrisies of our modern lifestyles, and moralists reminding us of the fragility of life.  There is truth to all of these viewpoints, and it’s interesting to see that artists are still finding life in the Dance of Death.

[Pictures: Two from Vom Totentanz, portfolio of wood block prints by Otto Wirsching, 1915 (Images from 50 Watts);

Three from Totentanz, portfolio of woodcuts by Robert Budzinski, c 1920 (Images from The Annex Galleries);

Six from Totentanz von Basel, portfolio of color woodcuts by HAP Grieshaber, 1966 (Images from Lempertz and Kettererkunst);

Two from The Dance of Death, portfolio of linocuts by Kreg K. Yingst, before 2012 (Images from 50 Watts).]

October 21, 2020

Ghost of John

         Today’s fantasy poem is a little different: the lyrics of a traditional folk song that many a generation of children has learned around Hallowe’en.  Because it’s sung as a round, the verse is actually very short.
     Have you seen the ghost of John?
     Long white bones with the skin all gone…
     Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?

        If you aren’t familiar with this one, I recommend listening to it with music, because it’s not really much of a poem, and it’s the music that contributes significantly to the feel and interpretation of the piece.  Here’s a pretty basic version.
      Okay, so let’s look at this first as horror.  Horror (to my irritation) is quite frequently lumped in with sci fi and fantasy, and of course some horror certainly includes those elements.  Axe murderers not so much, but ghosts can be a legitimate fantasy topic when they’re about exploring something that doesn’t follow our natural laws and explanations of everyday “reality.”  But as for horror, this song cranks it up in both words and music.  The story begins like all the scariest horror: there’s something here.  No, here, where you thought you were safe.  Have you seen it?  You might, because it’s nearby, in your neighborhood, among people you know, where any dark and lonely place might suddenly reveal those long, white bones that cannot be explained by the rational mind… Those ghostly white bones that are the presence of unquiet Death.  The tune, meanwhile, is in a minor key, with a slow build to the keening like wind or worse…  Many people have fun trying to make it sound as creepy as possible, with organ, or eerie sound effects, or dour and dismal children’s choirs.
The canon should offer John his cloak.
        I do not like horror.  For one thing, I scare easily.  For another, once something gets into my head, it stays there, and the danger of a good imagination is that when it gets to work on something, it’s very difficult to stop.  And most of all, I simply don’t enjoy being afraid.  Apparently many people find fear exciting or invigorating or something, but I just find it completely unpleasant.  So why was this little horror ditty one of my favorite songs that I learned in music class back in first grade or so?  Because of the last line, which gives the poem a wonderful fantasy twist ending.  It turns us suddenly from victims of a haunting to companions of a fellow being.  It asks us to empathize with the ghost of John, and my imagination is now engaged not in creating scenarios of horror against me, but in inhabiting another character’s experience.  John is an object of sympathy, rather than fear.  The way I learned the song, the tune heightened this twist ending because we sang the last three words suddenly staccato, for comic effect.  I was disappointed that most of the versions I listened to on-line didn’t make that contrast, and instead continued legato and creepy through the whole thing, which I think slightly misses the delightful point of it all.
        This little poem is hardly a serious exploration of anything, but I do think it illustrates an important point.  The horror genre is all about seeing oneself as the victim and expecting everyone and everything else to be malicious and deadly - and necessary to destroy.  This song turns horror into fantasy by reminding us that perhaps we can have a little empathy with the “other.”  What do we discover when we try to see from someone else’s point of view, instead of fearing them as a monster?  What “reality” did it turn out we just might have been wrong about?

[Pictures: De Anatomia, wood block print possibly by Ugo da Carpi from Isagogae breves by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, 1523 (Image from National Library of Medicine);

Death and the Canon, wood block print with hand coloring from Totentanz by Heinrich Knoblochtzer, before 1488 (Image from University of Heidelberg).]