March 28, 2014

Words of the Month - Contraphonic Synonyms?

This salamander is inflammable.  He finds the fire perfectly habitable.
        The obvious follow-up from last month’s contronyms - the same word with two opposite meanings - are those sets of words that look like they should mean the opposite but in fact mean the same.  I couldn’t find that there’s any name for such words, I’m sorry to say, but you all know what I mean: flammable/inflammable.
        flammable/inflammable - Inflammable is the older word in English and comes directly from Latin, where the in- prefix in this case actually means “in” (as in “in flames”) rather than “not.”  I don’t know why people started using flammable, some two centuries later, but probably just because inflammable sounds so much like it ought to mean not flammable.  For another century the older inflammable was more common in the US, and the newfangled flammable more common in Britain.  It was during World War II that flammable really became widespread on both sides of the Atlantic.  When the USA joined the war, the Allied leaders asked them to label explosives with “Flammable” so as not to cause confusion - and explosions.

        bone/debone - My dictionary dates bone to the end of the fifteenth century, and debone to 1940-5.  (Bone, by the way, is also a contronym - you can bone a fish subtractively but bone a corset additively.  Pretty versatile to manage to be in both lists, eh?)  Unfortunately I can’t find any explanation of the appearance of debone - Was it clarification for non-native English speakers employed in kitchens and restaurants?  Was it pretentious jargon on the part of cookbook writers?  My own hypothesis is that debone was a way to avoid any suspicion of the indelicate slang meaning of bone, “to have sexual intercourse with,” which was appearing at around the same time.  (Alas, I don’t have any data on the subject, but you can see my blog post on this phenomenon in general.)

        embowel/disembowel - Disembowel is certainly the standard word nowadays for removing innards (not that it’s something people talk about all that much.)  However, it’s the later form, and came about in a funny way.  Embowel came from French in the early sixteenth century, and the em- prefix meant “out,” so it was a perfectly reasonable word.  Meanwhile, English already had the word disbowel meaning the same thing, also perfectly reasonably.  I think you can see where this is going.  For reasons I do not know, speakers decided to do a mash-up, and around 1600 the doubly negative disembowel appeared, and has since effectively taken over the innard-removing duties in the English language.
This one is flammable, and he finds the fire inhabitable.

        habitable/inhabitable - Here’s another case of quirky etymology.  When you can live somewhere, it ought to be habitable, and indeed it was, since the late fourteenth century.  At the same time, inhabitable meant, of course, “not habitable” with the in- prefix meaning “not.”  Nowadays inhabitable means the same as habitable, so how did it change to its opposite?  Simple - it isn’t really the same word at all.  The original inhabitable has become obsolete, while a new word was coined.  Taking the word inhabit meaning “to dwell in” (in which the in- prefix means “in”), people added the -able suffix around 1600 to get, perfectly logically, inhabitable meaning “able to be dwelt in.”

        privation/deprivation - This is a simple one.  The prefix de- in Latin could reverse a verb’s action and make it opposite, as in defrost, derail… or debone.  That’s why we see privation and deprivation and think they look like they ought to be opposites.  But the Latin de- could also be an intensifier, especially in front of verbs with negative meanings to begin with, and that’s what it’s doing here.  Deprivation is utter, complete privation.  Oh, Latin, Latin, Latin.  Why must you confuse us so?

        caregiver/caretaker - My final pair today are fun because they aren’t a matter of a simple prefix.  They’re both relatively new words, caretaker dating from the mid nineteenth century, and originally meaning a steward, or someone who takes care of property and things rather than people.  Perhaps that’s why caregiver appeared around 1975 - to imply a role that was more about human interaction.  The funny thing really is why taking care and giving care are the same.  It probably has to do with care’s troubled origins.  When care meant “sorrow, anxiety, trouble,” it was consistent to take it on someone’s behalf.  As the meaning shifted to “an inclination for, fondness,” and eventually “love,” it seemed more natural to give it.

[Pictures: Salamander (the device of Francis I), woodcut perhaps by Christopher Plantin, from Devises Heroïques by Claude Paradin, 1557 (Image from Glasgow University);
Salamander (printer’s device), woodcut from a book printed by Charles Pesnot, 1567.]

March 25, 2014

Woman Warrior Woodcuts

        March being Women’s History Month and all, I figure this is a good time to show you a small collection of old wood block prints depicting warrior women.  Now, as a pacifist myself, I’d just as soon there be fewer male warriors rather than more female warriors, but nevertheless these women are an interesting bunch.  
How history has treated them is always interesting, too.  Of course, the focus here is on their depiction in the noble medium of woodcut.
        I’ll go chronologically, as more befitting my historical subject, and begin with our old friend Olaus Magnus, chronicler of the Nordic peoples.  Apparently the subject of warrior women was so fascinating to him that he took a couple of chapters away from the North to discuss Amazons and other martial women around the world.  These two on horseback have long hair, short skirts, and all too effective-looking weaponry.
        Next up, a particular  historical warrior: Boudicca, famous for attempting to defend her part of Britain from the Romans.  This portrait from 1611 has her looking more 1611-ish than first century, a trait I find rather charming in art.  She’s also got improbably long hair and an improbably small dog.  (At least, I think that’s a dog.  I wish I had a bigger, sharper reproduction to look at.)
        This magnificent woodcut in the style of Dürer shows a woman warrior with a breastplate and shoulder guards that would make any fantasy costumier proud.  There are a lot of really cool details, including the worm’s head of her scimitar’s pommel, the lions’ heads on her shoulders, and the beautiful patterns on her shins, trappings, and textiles.  Indeed, she’s so incredibly cool that her horse doesn’t even have reins.  She battles with one hand on her hip, she’s just that in command.
        By contrast, this piece from the Revolutionary War era is the most stiff and primitive of the bunch.  I love her knowing little smile, though.  She’s not going to take any nonsense from any Redcoat.  She’s also our only warrior modern enough to use a gun.  There were a number of women recorded as fighting in the Revolutionary War, most disguised as men.  I don’t know whether this is intended to represent any of them in particular.
        Though it's the most recent woodcut today, this last one represents one of the more ancient historical women: Han Gaku, who lived around 1200.  Like Boudicca (and so many others who live by the sword) she was ultimately defeated.  Unlike Boudicca, however, she was saved from death by a male warrior who wanted to marry her.  Of course I have no idea what she thought of marrying this man, though presumably he seemed preferable to a violent death.  She looks rather stubborn in our woodut, so I hope the man loved her for her courage and battle skills rather than expecting a wife who would be meek and subdued.
        The trope of the woman warrior has a long history in fantasy, from Hippolyta, to Bradamante, to Eowyn, to Black Widow.  They often end up dead or “tamed,” like Boudicca and Han Gaku, which some feminists find understandably annoying.  I can’t say I generally mind much when people give up war - I just wish more of the men would end up “tamed,” too!

On Martial Exercises of Women, woodcut from Book 5 Chapter 28 of Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from Lars Henriksson);
Queen Boadicea, woodcut from The History of Great Britaine by John Speed, 1611 (Image from Blogdorf Goodman);
Marfisa Bizara, woodcut from the back of a printed board game, 18th century? (Image from the Ashmolean Douce Blog);
Armed female combatant, woodcut from A New Touch on the Times, c 1779 (Image from History of Massachusetts);
Han Gaku, color woodcut by Yoshitoshi, 1883 (Image from The Floating World of Ukiyo-e).]

March 22, 2014

Shiko Munakata's Itaga

        Shiko Munakata (Japan, 1903-1975) was a woodcut artist who emphasized the importance of the wood and the block rather than the artist’s will.  According to Frank Castle, “he worked in a very rough and aggressive manner, and often used the ends of boxes, very rough wood, like orange crates, and then he would use chisels, and… just work frantically and often would carve a block within a matter of a few minutes.”  Clearly this was a major departure from the incredibly controlled traditional Japanese hanga technique.  It was more consistent with movements in Western art of the mid-twentieth century.
        Munakata wrote a book on The Way of the Woodcut, in which he propounded his ideas about art as a manifestation of nature’s force, with the artist as a mere conduit.  He said, “The nature of the woodcut is such, that even a mistake in its carving will not prevent it from its 
true materialization.”  I suppose this should comfort all my doubts about my own Variations on a Traditional Theme woodcut and its many mistakes!  Certainly you can see in Munakata’s work that he wasn’t bothered by irregular gouges or rough backgrounds.  This first piece above is my favorite.  I really love the composition with the little bird amid the tangle of branches.  
        Another of Munakata’s claims was that “It is inherent in the woodcut that it can never be ugly.”  I’m afraid I can’t agree with him there!  Munakata did a number of woodcuts that I don’t find pleasing at all, particularly of people.  I’ve included this woman’s head because it’s my favorite of his people that I saw.  She is a lot smoother and more controlled than much of his other work, and her features with her tiny mouth are quite traditional, as well.
        I like this hawk a lot.  The rough, unplanned carving works well for the pattern and texture of rough feathers.  The patterns continue on the twigs and flowers around the edges.  The hawk completely fills the block, going to the very edges, which I think is an interesting composition choice.
        One final quotation from Munakata, a bit grandiose and pretentious perhaps, but pleasing (if amusing) to any true block print lover: “Like the vastness of space, like a universe unlimited, untold, unattainable, and inscrutable - that is the woodcut.”  Oh, yeah!

[Pictures: Bush Warbler, woodcut by Shiko Munakata, 1959 (Image from invaluable);
Daisho Head of Woman, woodcut by Munakata, 1961 (Image from Art Gallery of Greater Victoria);
Kotaka (Fledgling Hawk), woodcut by Munakata, 1951 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art).]
Frank Castle quotation from Antiques Roadshow.
Shiko Munakata quotations from Munakata: the “Way” of the Woodcut, 1961.

March 18, 2014

The Importance of Fantasy (III)

        It’s time for me to harp some more on the value of fantasy in developing the human imagination and intellect.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here are a few much-admired achievers in a variety of real-and-earnest scientific fields explaining how important they deem creative fantasy.
  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.
        Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was the biologist whose observations about pesticides such as DDT brought awareness of the need for conservation to the American public and led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  She points out the connection between the capacity to wonder and marvel, and the urge to study and value the natural world - and the importance of maintaing this sense of wonder into adulthood, rather than outgrowing it in order to be “mature.”

        All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy.
        Carl Jung (1875-1961) was the enormously influential psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology.  (I’ll forgive him the sexism of his wording, seeing as he was born in 1875.)  It may seem obvious that nothing is created that isn’t first imagined, yet just this week there was a letter to the editor in my town newspaper making once again the ever-popular claim that the arts are a waste of time and money in our schools because they aren’t practical.  But what could possibly be more practical than giving our children the tool they need at the most basic level before they can accomplish anything productive at all: the tool of creative fantasy?

        It has been written that the shortest and best way between two truths of the real domain often passes through the imaginary one.
        Jacques Hadamard (1865-1963) was the mathematician who made major contributions to number theory and differential geometry (among other things.)  He was also particularly interested in how creativity works, and around 1900 he surveyed 100 leading physicists about their own thought processes.  You can see something about his conclusions in the comment above, finding that introspection, wordless imagining, and spontaneity were at least as vital as logical, calculating cognition.

        Now I’d absolutely never say that we don’t need logic.  Indeed, we clearly need a lot more of it than we currently see!  But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that we need logic paired with imagination -- and that one of the best tools there is for fostering imagination is fantasy.

[Pictures: 4. Landscape with ruins, dodecahedron, and rhombohedron;
7. Landscape with ruins and penetration of rhombododecahedron and hexahedron, wood block prints from Geometria et Perspectiva by Lorenz Stör, 1567 (Images from TU.)]

March 14, 2014

Whaling Art

        Last weekend we went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and saw there two types of art that are not block printing, but are somewhat related to block printing.
        First, this piece by Peter Michael Martin.  At first glance from across the room I thought it was a linoleum block print, but in fact it’s cut from a sheet of black tyvek.  It occurred to me that although the medium is quite different after all, still the process has much in common with block printing:  it’s subtractive, starting from black and cutting out everything that’s to end up white.  Like block prints, it works best with a balance of black and white, and there can be different textures, but no actual midtones.  (I always say “ink or no ink,” but in this case “tyvek or no tyvek.”)  The picture is of Herman Melville, his shadow cast on the street of New Bedford by “the brilliance of both the moonlight and Moby Dick.”  I always like night scenes.  (I keep meaning to do more of them myself.)  I like the different treatment of the roofs on the two sides of the street.
        The other almost-block-printing art is scrimshaw.  In fact you can think of scrimshaw as engraving that’s never printed.  The “blocks,” like this whale tooth by William Sizer, aren’t flat enough to put through a press, but if you could print them, it would be intaglio not relief printing.  Like intaglio engraving (and the opposite of 
relief block printing), the ink is forced down into the carved areas and wiped off the surface.  Unlike the subtractive process of block printing (and tyvek cutting), in scrimshaw the lines you carve are the lines that make up your black picture on an ivory background.  Still, I feel a certain kinship with those sailors carving away at their hard blocks to make pictures of the things they saw and imagined, to give pleasure to themselves and their loved ones.  It certainly proves once again that the human urge to create is not confined to some Artsy elite, but flourishes everywhere.

[Pictures: Melville the Man #2, black on white tyvek by Peter Michael Martin, 2013;
L.C. Richmond on her Maiden Voyage, scrimshaw on tooth by William Sizer, c1834-7.  (Photos by AEGN at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.)]

March 11, 2014

Turn the Page... Open the Door... Enter the Adventure...

       Big News!  Excitement!  Great Glad Tidings!  My new book is published!  The Extraordinary Book of Doors is now available at amazon, and at my various upcoming events.
        You can trace much of the creation of this book through my occasional posts about it in this blog over the past two years from my initial inspiration, through the unveiling of the first chapter.
     Serlio’s Stage Designs
     History in Fantasy
     Faux Woodcuts
     Autumn Clematis in Springtime
     Benjamin Franklin, Dabbler in Magic
     What’s New - Chapter 1

        This is a middle grade book, appropriate for kids roughly in grades 4-8 (and, of course, for us adults who like reading juvenile fantasy, too!)  Here’s the blurb:  When worrywort Chen Connelly finds a mysterious antique book beneath a park bench, his safe but lonely summer suddenly becomes exciting.  Perhaps a little too exciting.  A book of renaissance architectural designs may not seem so exciting, until Chen finds himself traveling through the pages of the magical book with Polly Goggin, the oddest girl he’s ever met, as they race to solve a treasure hunt left by Benjamin Franklin, find their way through a maze of mysterious doors, and dodge far too many angry security guards.  It doesn’t help that a murderous, strangely-nondescript magician-thief is on their trail with a magic book of his own, willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on Benjamin Franklin’s treasure and all three magical books.
        In addition to chases, escapes, magic, Fun Art Facts, and a calico cat, The Extraordinary Book of Doors also features scenes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Old South Meeting House in Boston, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Saint Bartholomew the Great church in London, and other Locations of Historical and Magical Interest.  If you’re interested in reviewing it, please let me know.  I’m currently working on adapting it to e-book format, but I have a limited number of hard copies for reviewers, as well, and I’d love to get out the word!
        If you’re in the greater Boston area, please join me at the Wellesley library on March 20, where I’ll be speaking as part of the library’s Local Author Series.  (Details here.)  I’ll be sharing reproductions from Serlio’s book, demonstrating my illustrations, answering questions, and reading from the book.  (I’ll also have refreshments as an added inducement.)  Children are welcome as well as adults, and I’d be delighted to see you there.

[Pictures: Cover, photo and design by AEGN from The Extraordinary Book of Doors, 2014;
title page, digital art by AEGN.]

March 7, 2014

Krenek's Seasons

        Here are three wood block prints from a series of eight by Carl Krenek (Austria, 1880-1948).  The series is called “Four Seasons,” and as it consists of eight, I’m assuming 2 views for each season.  I’ve put number 8 first here, since it looks a lot like I feel now, sitting inside looking out at the cold and snow.
        Krenek was clearly having fun with pattern when he made these prints.  Everything’s patterned: the dress, the chair, the floor, the curtains, and of course the huge carpet border, bigger than the actual picture it frames.  And that brings me to an interesting thing about these prints: the pictures are wood engravings, while the borders are woodcut.  In other words, they’re carved separately.  Moreover, if you 
look at the borders, you’ll notice that there are two different designs, while two of the borders are exactly the same.  In fact, there are only two borders for the set of eight pictures.  I don’t know whether Krenek printed the borders and the pictures separately, or whether he made them the same thickness so he could fit the picture inside the center of the border and print as one large block.
        This second piece is number 2 of the series, and as I’m assuming that they go in order and end with winter, that would make this the second of two views of spring.  I wish I could see these a little bigger and sharper - are the white blobs along the path the remnants of melting snow?  But everything seems to be in full leaf and flower, which would imply that the snow should be long gone.  I’m afraid I just can’t tell, but regardless of seasonal accuracy, I do like the different patterns of the different bushes, and the framing of the big building in the distance with its fancy door.
        And finally, summer.  (Yes, I like the sound of that!)  What a lovely grove of birches, and what a fun stylized pattern for their leaves.  I like the contrast of the plants in the foreground with the more abstract patterns representing things in the distance.  And around all these scenes, the marvelous, swirling, neo-medieval borders.  They make even the winter scenes lush and luxuriant.

[Pictures: Four Seasons: Plate 8;
Four Seasons: Plate 2;
Four Seasons: Plate 3, all wood engravings with woodcut borders by Carl Krenek, 1906 (Images from the Cleveland Museum of Art).]

March 4, 2014

Reading the Old to the Young

        Tomorrow is World Read Aloud Day, and it’s a good reminder of the vital importance of reading aloud to children to help them develop literacy.  I’m on about this stuff all the time, so today I wanted to focus on one particular benefit of reading aloud to children that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before: it’s one of the best ways to introduce them to the older classics with more complex language.  Stereotypically it’s assumed that children won’t read stuff with archaic language or long complex sentence structures.  Such books will confuse and bore them, and they’ll give up and go look for something with sentences that go “Boom!  Zap!”  This may indeed be true if no one ever teaches children that they can handle older books - that they can understand them, that their language has its own joys, and that they can find incredible stories in their pages.  And the best way to teach them is to show them.  Read these books aloud and children will become familiar with the patterns and vocabulary of past ages of books, they’ll hear the stories and enjoy them, and in the future when they encounter similar writing styles, they won’t be thrown off by it, or assume that it’s old and therefore boring.  Here’s a list of older fantasy books worth reading aloud to children.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald - Full of Victorian syntax, vocabulary, and occasionally sentimentality, MacDonald’s books are also full of evocative descriptions of magical moments, and of rousing adventure.  This one features a sweet young princess, her magical “grandmother,” a brave young miner, and an underground kingdom of evil goblins plotting conquest.  It also features ideals of virtue, trust, honesty, courage, and Trying to Be Good, which give the story more depth.  Those may make it tougher for children to read by themselves, but if you read aloud to them, what they’ll really notice is the danger, mystery, adventure, and triumphant ending.

The Reluctant Dragon, by Kenneth Grahame - This is one of those stories appropriate for young  kids but tough for them to read by themselves, in part because of its sheer hearty Britishness.  (Maybe an impediment only to US children, of course.)  This “mismatch” of gentle content and sophisticated language makes it perfect for reading aloud.  It’s also a play off the legend of St George, so it’s good to have a grown-up introducing it and able to explain some background if necessary.  But once they have an adult reading to them to help them over any difficulties, what child could be anything but delighted by the mild-mannered poetic dragon and the spunky, independent boy who befriends him?  (The Wind in the Willows, also by Grahame, is another good candidate for introduction by read-aloud.  There are, of course, many great older classics that aren’t fantasy, but that’s not what this blog is about.)

Some books I’ve mentioned in other places, but which fit into this category include
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll - When kids aren’t confident readers, made-up or deliberately misspelled words can really throw them.  It’s helpful to have a grown-up reading the nonsense words aloud so that kids can hear that they’re not supposed to know this word already - and if they’re still confused, there’s someone right there to ask.  But on the whole, kids adore absurdity.
Dream-of-Jade, by Lloyd Alexander (not particularly old, but written in deliberately formal, high-falutin’ style.)

        And that brings me to another category that works well both for introducing children to more old-fashioned language and for reading aloud.  Short stories make excellent bite-sized (or perhaps I should say bedtime-sized) treats to share.  Here are some excellent ones that kids might not be inclined to read on their own, but which will reward reading together.

Arabian Nights - There are lots of versions of these stories, from unexpurgated collections that are not at all appropriate for children, to modern versions that kids can no doubt pick up easily enough themselves.  The version we read, however, from the “Illustrated Junior Library” (illustrated by Goodenow, but with no credited author), had a lot of fun with very formal, flowery language.  The deliberately archaic language really contributed to the feel of princes and princesses in exotic lands, which was a major feature of the stories both in their original and in their appeal to English speakers.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (or older collections of fairy tales from Grimm or around the world) - I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Andersen’s tales on the whole, but if you do want your kids to know and love them, it’s probably a good idea to read them aloud.  In all the Victorian fairy and folk tale collections there’s enough old-fashioned language, and enough general weirdness, that it’s helpful for kids to hear them read aloud.  And of course the bonus is that you can then discuss them together.

Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling - These are meant to be read aloud in any case, with their obvious delight in the sounds and rhythms of language.  But this may be the place for one other note about older books.  Wonderful though they are, many of them do include elements of racism, sexism, and other problematic issues.  Reading aloud allows the adult the opportunity to edit and/or stop and discuss as necessary.  This, too, is a great learning experience for kids and adults alike.

Winnie the Pooh stories, by A.A. Milne

        There is one thing to keep in mind, though, if you want to introduce children to the pleasures of older books:  you have to enjoy the older books yourself!  You have to be able to read those long, convoluted sentences.  You have to know that archaic vocabulary.  You have to read fluently and enthusiastically, so that the children aren’t hearing “difficult,” or “awkward,” or “boring.”  They’re simply hearing “great story.”

[Pictures: Three illustrations by Arthur Hughes from The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, 1872 (Image from Once on a Tyme);
This is the picture of the Djinn making the beginnings of the Magic that brought the Humph to the Camel.” woodcut by Rudyard Kipling from Just So Stories, 1902 (Image from Dan Short).]