August 30, 2013

Words of the Month - Twice-Borrowed

        As everyone knows, English loves to borrow words from other languages.  What you may not know is that sometimes we love borrowing so much that we borrow the same word multiple times over the years, giving us a different English word each time.
        My first example starts with Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy and victory.  She gave her name in Latin to mean "stringed instrument."  This word got borrowed into the Germanic languages and thence to Old English, and became the modern English fiddle.  (I should note that, like much etymology, this is not entirely certain.  Some think fiddle is from purely Germanic roots, but I like the Latin etymology better, because of the next piece…)
        The Latin word for stringed instruments wasn't just borrowed into the Germanic languages.  It also developed in the Romance languages, and centuries later English encountered the word again in its Italian forms, viola and the diminutive violino.  We cheerfully borrowed these words, too, giving us, obviously, viola and violin.  So English now has two different but synonymous words for this particular stringed instrument, both borrowed from the same root Latin word.

      While we're on the subject of stringed instruments, let's talk about the Persian sitar.  English borrowed this word (by way of Hindi) around 1845, I'm assuming when English-speakers encountered the instrument in India.  But our sitar is not the first time we borrowed that Persian word.  The Greeks borrowed it first, whence it eventually reached Spanish.  By this time, in the seventeenth century, the word looked a little different: guitarra.  And when English borrowed the word from Spanish we got guitar.  But it doesn't end there.
        The Greek word got borrowed into Latin, and borrowed from Latin into Old High German.  Around 1850 English struck again, borrowing the German word and getting zither.

        Here's a final pair, based on a Turkish word for a refreshing drink.  At the end of the sixteenth century English borrowed an elegant French word for a cool drink of fruit juice and water, which had developed out of that Turkish word.  That gave us sorbet (which didn't come to mean a frozen dessert until the middle of the nineteenth century.)
        Not long after borrowing sorbet, we went straight to the Turkish source and borrowed the word a second time, getting sherbet.  (I don't know why we bothered since it meant the same type of drink and proceeded to develop into the same sort of frozen dessert, the only difference being that sherbet may have dairy or eggs, but sorbet never does.)
        Just to sweeten the etymological deal, I'll include one more related word.  The Turkish word that gave us sorbet and sherbet derived from an Arabic word for a drink.  That Arabic word was borrowed into Old French and became sirop, from which, in the late fourteenth century, English borrowed the word and got syrup.

[Pictures:  Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001;
Washburn: the world's standard, anonymous artist from Ladies' Home Journal, 1910;
The Zither Player, woodcut by Tobias Stimmer, latter half of the sixteenth century (Images from NYPL Digital Gallery).]

August 27, 2013


        I like roots.  When I was a child I made the acquaintance of an enormous pine tree that grew right on the edge of a steep slope, almost a low cliff.  Erosion had left a huge swirl of roots exposed on the cliff side, and I could climb among them.  There were a couple of good seats, and in front of one seat in particular there was another root placed like a control panel and adorned with chunky bark for buttons and little twigs for levers.  It was my helicopter tree.  Among the roots of other trees I made elaborate fairy houses.  As for smaller plants, I've certainly hated the roots of a few sumacs, dandelions, and bindweeds in my day, but the idea of roots, the metaphor of pushing down into the earth, or into the past, or into the divine, the better to reach out with strength and generosity to the world around… this is an idea that resonates with me.  So when I carved the image of a tree with roots it's partly about the way it looked, but it's also about that whole host of associations and metaphors.

        Needless to say, I'm not the only one who likes the look and the idea of roots, so here's a collection of block prints showing roots.  I've tried to pick a bit of variety… the roots above ground and below, the roots of small plants and huge trees, roots in detailed engravings and in rough lino prints…  And as usual when I put together a collection, I enjoy comparing the different choices different artists have made.
        We start with Polinsky's familiar edible roots - yum!  It's easy to forget that these ordinary veggies are roots, too.
        In these three depictions of full grown trees with their roots we get three very different concepts.  Noble's is a very traditional woodcut: traditional in the style of lines and textures, traditional in composition and subject, and traditional in the incredible level of technical expertise and skill.  Schmidt's version, rather than look
realistic like Noble's, has an interesting geometric design as the texture of the underground soil.  And Schalliol-Hodge has taken the roots idea a little surreal with her juxtaposition of the trees growing above the factory chimneys as if the smoke became roots.

        Of course a tree isn't big instantly, and one of the other lovely associations with roots is seeds and how they start putting out their roots down in the dark soil, silently.  To celebrate that I give you Dirolf's accurately detailed, downright botanical image.

        The final one is probably my favorite, just a straightforward representation of the part of the roots you actually see every day - but such lovely shadows and textures!  I hope you find a favorite or two among these block prints, and that you remember to appreciate your roots!

[Pictures: Holding On, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out);
Garden Roots, linocut by Haley Polinsky (Image from her Etsy shop HaleyPolinsky);
Old Oak Tree Roots, woodcut by Steve Noble (Image from his web site);
Strong Roots, linocut by Mike Schmidt (Image from his Etsy shop mikeschmidt);
Growth, linocut by Sara Schalliol-Hodge (Image from her Etsy shop saraschalliol);
Maple Seedling, woodcut by George Dirolf (Image from Oakroom Artists Gallery);
Tree Roots, woodcut by Donna Ibing (Image from Hamilton Arts & Letters).]

August 23, 2013

Happy Birthday to Ozma

        I'd like to take the opportunity for a small tribute to Princess Ozma, ruler of the Land of Oz, on the occasion of her birthday.  We know she likes birthday parties, because the (admittedly weak) plot of The Road to Oz consists of the adventures of Dorothy and friends as they attempt to get to the Emerald City in time for Ozma's lavish party.  People have used the timeline of that book to calculate that Ozma's birthday is August 21.  (So I'm just a little belated.  Sorry!)
        Ozma is an interesting character altogether - no stereotypical princess.  We first meet her in The Marvelous Land of Oz, but we don't know she's Ozma… and neither does she.  As a baby she was transformed into a boy called Tip, as part of a plot to usurp the throne of Oz.  Tip lives with the wicked witch Mombi, and the book is about Tip's adventures as he runs away from Mombi.  Glinda eventually figures out Tip's true identity and has Mombi turn him back into a girl - about which he's pretty horrified at first.  I wonder whether this gender-bending raised any eyebrows in 1904, but the Wikipedia article points out that the book was probably written with an eye to stage adaptation and that this was the era when boy characters were played by actresses.  So perhaps it would have seemed perfectly logical.
        In any case, once a girl again, Ozma is as thoroughly girlish as she can be: sweet, gentle, dainty, lovely, with enormous flowers in her hair…  However, she's also an excellent ruler, benevolent, just, courageous, caring, and beloved.  She's also strong and adventuresome, as in my favorite of the Oz books, Ozma of Oz, in which she leaves her kingdom to rescue a neighboring ruling family from the slavery of the Nome King.
        Some time around third grade I decided to be Ozma of Oz for Halloween, and wore a flowing white nightgown, and made myself a fancy headdress and scepter out of cardboard, which I painted gold.  As I recall, nobody in the neighborhood recognized the character, which is too bad, since she's every bit as important in the Oz books as Glinda, or even Dorothy.
        Consistency was never Baum's strong point and there are all kinds of discrepancies between books, from the color of Ozma's hair (ruddy gold or dark) to her race (human or fairy) to her aging process and actual age.  So while Ozma may be something around 120 years old now, she may also be eternal and ageless.  But even eternal and ageless fairies like an excuse for a party, so Happy Birthday, Ozma!

[Pictures: Ozma, fronstpiece by John R. Neill;
Ozma to the rescue on The Magic Carpet, illustration by Neill from Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907.]

August 20, 2013

Linocuts by Voyiya

        South African artist Vuyile Voyiya (b. 1961) has a very distinctive style of linoleum block printing.  His images are almost all people, usually on plain black backgrounds, and depicted with patterns of dots or short strokes.  The density of the dots defines the highlights on the people's bodies, leaving dark shadows.  Voyiya trained as a sculptor and his interest in and knowledge of the human body and its three-dimensionality come across clearly in these linocuts.
        Many of Voyiya's people seem to be modern dancers with intricate physical
interactions and beautifully modelled muscles.  But despite the appearance of dancing, the titles of some of his works (especially those from the 1980s) reveal his concern with race relations in his native South Africa.  Others are more formal or academic explorations of figures in space.  (No, I'm not talking about sci fi.)
        I admire Voyiya's ability to show foreshortening and all sorts of other complex motions of the human body.  I admire his ability to control shading.  I admire the blackness of his black, something I always have trouble with using water based ink and hand pressing!  I also find it interesting that he finds so much interest in what seems to me such a narrow range of
subject matter.  I'm always fascinated by what grabs other people.

[Pictures: Blissful Swing III, linoleum block print by Vuyile Voyiya, 2007 (Image from The Cape Gallery);
Black & Blue II, linoleum block print by Voyiya, 2005;
Floating Freely, linoleum block print by Voyiya, 2007 (Images from The AVA Gallery).]

August 16, 2013

"Tales of the Night"

        Next up in my collection of animated fantasy movie reviews is "Tales of the Night" from 2011.  It sounds like a horror movie, but in fact it tells six folk tales in a way that's appropriate for relatively young children.  The set-up is that a girl, a boy, and an old man tell stories together in a small movie theater.  Although it's never mentioned explicitly, the theater itself must have magic or sci-fi powers, because it provides a machine with which the young people give themselves the costumes and hairstyles appropriate to each of the stories, as well as allowing them to put themselves into the scenery and take the roles of the protagonists of each tale.  For the most part, however, the interludes in the theater are just the string on which the six stories are strung as beads, and this string has no plot of its own.  (Apparently five of the six stories are taken from a French television series called "Dragons et princesses," which in its turn grew out of various previous series, so I don't know whether the bracketing set-up was ever given more attention in those programs.  I know I would have liked a little more conclusion to tie it all together at the end of the movie.)
        The most interesting thing is the animation style, in which all scenery and characters are black silhouettes against brightly colored backdrops.  The backdrops have different colors and styles based on the different settings, and the contrast with the black is quite beautiful and dramatic.  The silhouettes were perfectly effective at
portraying the moods and emotions of the characters.  P and T didn't seem to have strong feelings about it one way or the other, and I don't know whether younger children would enjoy the boldness or be bothered by the lack of realism.  My guess is that most kids will just take it as they find it.
        The six tales are set in medieval Europe, the West Indies, Aztec times, West Africa, Tibet, and medieval Europe again.  They are based on traditional tales, but with modifications to make them more palatable to the boy and girl of the theater (and, of course, the modern viewer.)  This is most explicit in the Tibetan tale, where the girl refuses to play the part of the girl in the story unless she can change the ending.  Because of the lack of detail in the animation, as well as the particular retellings, there is no graphic violence, however these tales do include plenty of threat of violence, and an awful lot of betrayal.  (Also, in the West African story it is evident that the women are topless.  It isn't exactly pornographic, and it didn't so much as raise an eyebrow in either the adults or the children of our family, but there it is in case it's of concern to others.)  In all the stories honesty and loyalty are rewarded, there's a recurring theme of being true to who you are, and in several of the stories non-violent solutions are found.
        All of these tales were new to me, and I enjoyed their range of sources.  Their fairly traditional format meant the plots were pretty predictable, which may seem boring to some children (or adults), but may also seem satisfyingly right and proper to others.  I wasn't bothered by it, but then, I'm a big fan of traditional fairy tales.  The final story did have a surprise twist ending, which we saw coming, but which children might really enjoy.
        I think this is one that could be shown to children in the 6-10 range.  One advantage at the lower end of the age range is that you could always show single stories or skip any of the stories that might be too scary or problematic for your particular child.  The first is one of the scarier ones, so if you're good with that one you should be fine for all of them (although the fifth is sadder).  Our favorite of the stories was definitely the second, in which a particularly jaunty hero gets through all his adventures with kindness instead of violence.  We all really enjoyed his interactions with the three hungry monsters (made even more appealing by their West Indian accents).

[Pictures: Movie poster;
Image from "The Doe-Girl and the Architect's Son";
Image from "Tijean and Belle-sans-connaitre", all from Tales of the Night, 2011, conceived and produced by Michel Ocelot.]

August 13, 2013

How Homer's Drawings Become Prints

      Winslow Homer (US, 1836-1910) was first known as an illustrator.  His most famous illustrations are those printed in such major publications as Harper's Weekly.  Here's a representative piece, showing his richness of detail, his touches of humor, his groupings of figures in various activities, and his attention to the interest in everyday life.  But his earliest freelance work was illustrating children's books.
        Here's a cute little piece from a book entitled Eventful History of Three Little Mice.  (This book was an example of a practice I mentioned in another post: it could be purchased for 12.5 cents in black and white or 25 cents with the illustrations hand-colored.)  Appealing as it is, however, it's not so much a "real" wood block print as a drawing that's been reproduced by the wood block technique.  That is, while the
physical piece was certainly relief printed, the printing was merely a method of reproduction, a necessary afterthought, not the target medium in its own right.  But whether or not that's a valid distinction to make, I think the method of reproduction is an interesting process.
        Princeton University's Julie Mellby explains, "This is how the production was often handled: For each drawing, a blank wood block was sent to Homer’s studio. The block usually consisted of a number of closely fitted pieces of boxwood bolted together. Homer drew directly on the block’s whitened surface and returned it to the publisher (later he was allowed to submit a drawing on paper). The master wood engraver cut the lines that ran across the joints. Then, the blocks were separated and assistants would engrave the different parts of the design. The blocks were then reassembled and electrotyped, to create a metal plate for printing."
        I was quite fascinated to learn that the blocks were carved in separate pieces by different people.  I wonder if you look closely at the bigger piece above, whether you can see slightly different styles of carving in different areas.  (I don't know whether the Harper's Weekly carving office worked that same way.)  I was also surprised to learn that the woodblock was turned into a metal block for actual printing.  I wonder why!  (If you're curious about the electrotyping process, there's a little video that explains it here.)  It's a reminder of block printing's funny and somewhat ambiguous history as an artistic medium.

[Pictures: August in the Country - The Sea-Shore, wood engraving by Winslow Homer from Harper's Weekly, 1859 (Image from 19th Century American Paintings);
Wood engraving by Homer from Eventful History of Three Little Mice, 1858.]
Quotation from Princeton University's Graphic Arts blog.

August 9, 2013

The Lady of Shalott

        It's poetry time again!  Today I have excerpts from The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  (Originally written in 1833, this is from the second version, from 1842.)  Loosely based on the story of Elaine of Astolat from Arthurian legend, in which Elaine dies of unrequited love for Lancelot, Tennyson's poem is more about atmosphere than plot.  Its fame has led to lines and images getting borrowed all over the place, from Agatha Christie to Avalon High, and Loreena McKennitt to a country music video by The Band Perry, to Dutch gothic metal band Autumn.  Anne of Green Gables famously found the story wonderfully romantic, and it was another of those poems that my family enjoyed reciting with overblown melodrama - not the whole
thing, though.  Just a few key stanzas.  I include the Fun Bits for you today, but if you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find it here.  The best stanza of all is the fourth of these below.  It requires pacing, extravagant gestures, a lily-white hand to the brow, and perhaps even a swoon.  Are you ready?

The Lady of Shalott
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

        Did you swoon?  If not, you'd better try again with a little more drama.  Yes, it's a ridiculous story, but far better to wallow in Victorian romantic melodrama just for a little while than to work up drama in your own life!

[Pictures: The Lady of Shalott, drawing by Florence M. Rutland, 1896;
The Lady of Shalott, wood engraving by J. Thompson from art by William Holman Hunt, 1857 (Image from the Tate);
Elaine Worships Lancelot, by George Wooliscroft Rhead and George Rhead, 1898 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Elaine, by John Moyr Smith, 1875 (First and fourth images from here.)]

August 6, 2013

How to Make a Summer Day

        Here's a color wood block print made by Gustave Baumann in 1924.  I don't really like it all that much.   So why is it today's featured block print?  Because the Cleveland Museum of Art has made available on-line an incredible collection of images that show Baumann's entire process of making this piece.
        Summer Clouds was made using six blocks for the six colors, and you can view each of the carved blocks, as well as the printed proof from each block.  This allows you to get a little bit inside Baumann's head and see how he broke down the scene in his mind.  He had to be able to figure out not only which areas he wanted to be each of his ink colors plus white, but also to envision what would happen as the various colors overlapped each other.  For example, the color of the pueblo comes from ochre ink on top of black ink, a combination I wouldn't have expected.
        But there's even more than that.  In addition to each of the plates as it was printed individually, you can also see an example of the piece after each stage of printing, with the blocks layered cumulatively.  So you can see that Baumann printed black first (the opposite of how I've always planned out my multi-color pieces), then ochre, then light blue, followed by green, pink, and finally grey.  You can see the piece built up color by color and detail by detail.  As the colors build up, the image grows and gains complexity and depth.  The level of detail is quite impressive - for example, the extra hatchwork of black and grey in the sky that give it depth, and
the entire block dedicated to a few pink flowers.  I like the border of little yellow dots all around the edge!
        To see all these images every step of the way, go to the CMA web site and check it out.  It's a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes - the magician showing us how the trick is done.  But that doesn't destroy the wonder.  Knowing what it takes to create this piece makes me appreciate it more.

[Pictures: Summer Clouds, color woodcut by Gustave Baumann, 1924;
Summer Clouds blue block;
Summer Clouds blue proof;
Summer Clouds step 1 (black proof);
Summer Clouds step 3 (black, ochre, blue);
Summer Clouds step 5 (black, ochre, blue, green, pink) (All images from the Cleveland Museum of Art.)]

August 2, 2013

Crazier Critters by Siegl

        I shared some wood block prints of critters by Siegl last week, and today I wanted to share some of her made-up monsters.  Siegl made quite a number of relief prints with fantastical monsters, no two alike, although most of them have avian elements.  She has a really nice, whimsical sense of imagination not only in the composition of the creatures themselves, but also in the roles they play.  They're often dancing, or with children, many hold plants or flowers, and they tend to look more adorable than scary.  Many have a shy look, and even the ones that are
presumably meant to be fierce or evil (as in the Hellish or Infernal Concert) end up seeming pretty cute.
        You can see in these examples how Siegl uses color.  She frequently prints a colored background with a plain, grained piece of wood, often inked with multi-colored gradations.  For the little Moon-bird she carved some white areas from the background block, but more often the background block seems to be completely uncarved.  (That doesn't mean it wasn't worked with, though.  Wood grain doesn't always show up much in printing unless you use a wire brush or some other tool to remove the softer areas of the wood and leave the grain raised.)
        Like Siegl's other work, these monstrous critters have lots of scratchy texture of fur and feathers.  Many have rough outlines and very carvy details.  They are rich in legs and horns, beaks and fins and wings…  I find them a lot of fun!

[Untitled monster, wood block print by Helen Siegl from The Birds and the Beasts Were There, 1963;
Hollenkonzert (Infernal Concert), wood block print by Siegl, 1965;
Moon-Bird, wood block print by Siegl;
Untitled monster, wood block print by Siegl from The Birds and the Beasts Were There, 1963;
Untitled, wood block print by Siegl;
Chick's Ballet, wood block print by Siegl, 1968.  (Images from Block Prints by Helen K Siegl)]