April 28, 2015

Words of the Month - The Suffixinator

        A productive suffix is one that can be actively used to form new words in a language.  An example is 
-ability.  As new verbs enter the language, -ability can be added to them, with a meaning that is readily apparent to and accepted by speakers (despite a certain curmudgeonliness about jargony coinings.)  The hackability of computers is evidence of this.  (An unproductive suffix, naturally, is one that was once used to form words in the language, but which can no longer be added to bases to form acceptable new words.  Think of the -head in godhead and maidenhead, or the -lock in wedlock.)
        English has recently gained a number of newly productive suffixes which are particularly interesting because they’ve been adapted from words in which they were not originally suffixes or separable parts at all.  In other words, English (perhaps primarily American English) seems to have a recent predilection for randomly chopping the ends off words and investing these word fragments with new meanings as suffixes.

-burger - Anything to which this suffix is added becomes a patty of ground food, as in cheeseburger, turkey-burger, and veggie-burger.  But burger doesn’t mean “minced meat” in the original hamburger from which the “suffix” was chopped, which is why, of course, hamburgers aren’t made of ham.  Burger really means “a person or thing from a fortified settlement” in German, in this case specifically something from Hamburg.  There are varying accounts of the invention of the hamburger and its name, but burger as a freestanding word seems to date from the late 1930s, at the same time that -burger became productive as a suffix.  Now one can request an ostrich-burger, scoff at a gristle-burger, or threaten to pound Ernie’s face into an Ernie-burger, and the meaning will be perfectly clear.

-kini - The bikini was named for an atoll in the Marshall Islands (as explained previously), which comes from Marshallese Pikinni meaning “surface of coconuts.”  It’s broken smack through the middle of one Marshallese element, so it isn’t really any word any more… except that in English it’s become productive as a suffix meaning a bathing suit that isn’t a normal one-piece tank suit.  This gives us tankini, in which the top half of the bikini is lengthened into a tank top, and skirtini in which the bottom has a mini skirt.  But an even more charming reinterpretation of the original bikini takes the bi- which used to be half of Marshallese “surface” instead to be Latinate “two.”  You can then replace it with other numbers, producing the monokini (the one-piece bikini bottom worn alone) and the trikini (a three-piece suit with separate cups on top.)  Presumably that makes nude beaches the place to look for the nullkini.

-oholic - One of our most popular new suffixes, this denotes addiction despite there being no etymological sense of addiction in the history of that combination of letters.  It’s simply half the alcohol of alcoholic, and in fact it’s often spelled -aholic, coming even farther from its etymological origins (as explained previously).   Apparently it was first used as a combining form for sugarholic in 1965, and within the next twenty years we coined workaholic, chocoholic, and shopoholic.  If I described myself as a bookoholic, a printoholic, a soupoholic, or a daffodilaholic, everyone would recognize my words at once (and perhaps even join me in confessing their shared passions for these things).

-athon - The marathon running event, named in 1894 after the Greek place name of legend (which means “fennel”), soon came to mean by extension any long, grueling event or activity.  It was first chopped apart and its second half used as a suffix in walkathon around 1931.  There followed talkathon, telethon, dance-a-thon (also spelled danceathon and dance-athon) and readathon.  And the suffix is still freely available for me to indulge in a cleanathon (ugh), a bakeathon (yum), or a printathon (oh joy!)

-gate - There’s no joy in the unfortunately ever-productive suffix denoting scandal.  It derives from chopping the end off the place name “Watergate,” the site of what obviously wasn’t the first political scandal but was in 1972 perhaps the first big one to keep the national media frenzied in the era of extensive television coverage.  Although a gate is, of course, just an innocent door in a wall or fence, we now hear about everything from Weinergate and Gamergate to utter trivialities in sports and entertainment.  I think it’s a scandal how overused this suffix is, and if I thought it was a conspiracy, too, I’d allege a Gategate.

Finally, a suffix to keep an eye on, as it’s become productive in comic slang (and among cheesy corporations):
-inator - It’s unclear exactly when this began.  Perhaps it comes from the Terminator movie in 1984, with the morphemes split after term instead of after terminate.  Perhaps its first true use was Trogdor the Burninator in 2003.  The feel of redundancy or overkill is deliberate, and it implies destruction to comic effect with overtones of mad science.  It’s used as the go-to suffix by the mad scientist Dr Doofenshmirz on Disney’s animated show “Phineas and Ferb.”  He has invented devices from the obvious Shrinkinator to the less obvious Giant Dog Biscuit-inator.  Cheesy actual corporations using the suffix seem to be mostly in the pest control business and include Moleinator and Pestinator.  But this is a suffix that isn’t as clearly defined as today’s other examples.  A Destructinator seems pretty straightforward, but if I were to invent the Printinator, would it destroy prints, like the Pestinator (heaven forfend!)?  Would it transform everything into a block print?  Would it stamp relief prints onto everything?  Perhaps that’s why this one really ought to remain in the world of comedy and fiction.  When -inator is involved, you know you’re unleashing something of ridiculously awesome destructive power (or perhaps awesomely ridiculous destructive power), but the details may be dangerously vague.

[Pictures: Hamburg, woodcut from Cosmographia by Sebastian Munster, c. 1570 (Image from Albion Prints);
Crossing the Haha, Holkham, wood engraving by Cordelia Jones (Image from the Norwich Print Fair).]

April 24, 2015

Pattern on Pattern

        Here are three bright variations that seem springlike to me, in the daffodil and hyacinth colors of my garden that make me so happy at this time of year.  These pieces are by Dan Rizzie (USA, b. 1951) and they are color woodcuts with chine collé.  Because I have not seen them in person, but only in reproduction on-line, I’m trying to figure out exactly how they were made.  The most obvious explanation is that Rizzie carved two blocks, one that was printed in color, and one for black.  For each color he printed on colored paper: pale blue paper under the blue ink, pale green under the green, etc.  But looking closely, most visible on the lower left of the blue version, there’s some evidence of an intermediate blue-grey color, too.  Is this a third block?  And another possibility is that the colored background patterns were on preprinted paper.  Chine collé is when a layer of paper is adhered between the background paper and the inked block.  (For more details, see my explanation here.)  Most often it’s plain colored paper, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be patterned paper.
        However Rizzie made these, I like the idea of layering pattern on pattern.  I like how sometimes the black shapes and lines echo or emphasize the shapes and lines in the background, and how sometimes they cut across and complement each other.  I like how the scale of the background is bigger and bolder than the scale of the black.  This is another idea that I might like to experiment with some time myself.  This could also be another possible idea for this summer’s printmaking classes I’ll be teaching.
        As for Rizzie’s three color variations, I think the texture is clearest on the blue and green, but even so I like the yellow best, because it’s so cheerful and bright.

[Pictures: Blackberry Thieves II (yellow), Blackberry Thieves I and III (green, blue), color woodcuts with chine collé by Dan Rizzie (Images from the Cleveland Museum of Art).]

April 21, 2015

Check This Out!

        Here’s something amusing: my Three Billy Goats Gruff and, more importantly, their troll, as featured on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” this past Sunday.  The speech bubble is a lie; sadly, John Oliver never said he loved my art.  In fact he was discussing the problem of “patent trolls,” and if you want to know what he actually said, you can watch the segment here.  (This begins at the appearance of my piece.  Back up slightly to start at the beginning of the segment.)  If you want to know more about my process in making the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” block print, you can read about that here.
        The process of getting my artwork on the air was kind of interesting.  I arrived home from my cousin’s wedding to find e-mail and phone messages from someone on the show.  They had presumably done an internet search for images of trolls and found mine.  I called back and there followed a quick flurry of back and forth as they tracked down the right people, explained how they wanted to use the image, and sent me forms to fill out.  They had first left messages on Saturday, but I didn’t return and see the messages until Sunday, when they were already shooting the show, so it was all quite a whirlwind.  Anyway, I think John Oliver is great and I’m honored to have my art featured on “Last Week Tonight,” even if he didn’t actually tell the world how much he loved it!
        In upcoming news, Needham Open Studios is in less than two weeks, and for the first time NOS artists are taking part in Boston ArtWeek during our open studio weekend.  I’m one of those offering a special demonstration and hands-on activity for ArtWeek during NOS, so come by on May 2 at 2:00 to learn how I make my block prints and to carve a miniature block of your own.  Details can be found on the ArtWeek site here.  Info about Needham Open Studios, including map of my location and all the other participating artists can be found on the NOS web site here.  This is one of my biggest shows of the year, so I’d love to see you!  Plus there are several other artists offering demonstrations and activities during the weekend, which should be very cool.  Be there if you can!

[Picture: still from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Patents,” April 19, 2015 (speech bubble added by AEGN).]

April 17, 2015

Earth Day

        Earth Day is coming up, and I thought I’d get in the spirit with a few block print depictions of planet Earth.  We’ll start with a wood block print of the miraculous creation of the Earth.  Those of us who don’t believe in a literal 6-day creationism by a Big Old Man can still appreciate the wonder of Earth’s creation.  I love this depiction of an incredibly detailed Earth, complete with waters and land, plants and animals, atmosphere and birds flying through the sky, and a watchful spirit proclaiming it all Good.  So here we are, having been given, by whatever means, a wonderful, intricate, good planet.
        And then it occurred to us, somewhere along the line, that we could do whatever we wanted with this Earth.  Here’s Archimedes, having found a sufficiently big lever and fulcrum, moving Earth.  I like the wiggly pattern of the texture lines.  I also like that he’s standing on an even bigger world to get the job done.  
Okay, maybe he’s standing on our Earth and merely hoisting a really big globe, but since he’s obviously celestially huge in any case, I think he’s moving Earth as promised.  And what does this tell us about ourselves?  Well, yes, it tells us about the power of simple machines, but it also warns us of our proclivity to fool around with Earth as the whim strikes, without thought of consequences.
        And so here we have Atlas, holding the Earth on his shoulders.  In this version he’s carrying not only Earth but the entire geocentric universe.  Once again he’s got a larger world to support him, with its own trees and ocean, and sailing ships coming into harbor by a town on the hills in the background.  But what’s my lesson from Atlas?  First, 
while we now know that our Earth is not the center of the universe and is indeed utterly insignificant astronomically speaking, it might be good to remember that it’s still the center and sum total of our universe, and we need it.  Therefore perhaps we should remember to consider ourselves in the role of Atlas, and support the Earth, take responsibility for it, carry the weight of whatever actions we’ll need to take to hold onto our Earth - so that the miraculous creation that is Earth will not be destroyed.

[Pictures: Creation of the Earth, woodcut from Luther’s translation of the Bible, 1545 (Image from Geocentric Model);
Archimedes moving the Earth, woodcut from Mechanic’s Magazine Volume II, 1824 (Image from Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library);
Coelifer Atlas, woodcut from The Cosmographicall Glasse by William Cunnigham, 1559 (Image from Sacred Circle).]

April 14, 2015

A True Story

        Around the middle of the second century a Greek-speaking Syrian Roman by the name of Lucian of Samosata was the first man on the moon.  (At least, his account of the lunar landing, included in his tale of a much longer journey, is the first surviving account we have of men on the moon.  Antonius Diogenes wrote an account of an earlier second century moon voyage by one Mantinias, but this work has not survived.  Of course, when Lucian arrived on the moon, he found people already there, even including an Earthling, so I guess that makes him the third Earth man on the moon…)  Lucian’s account of his travels, called True History, begins with an introduction in which he states “As I have no truth to put on record, having lived a very humdrum life, I fall back on falsehood… My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.”
        Lucian and a ship full of men and provisions set sail for adventure.  At first they encountered the sorts of islands and peoples other Greek and Roman voyagers had discovered before them, but then “a waterspout suddenly came upon us, which swept the ship round and up to a height of some three hundred and fifty miles above the earth. She did not fall back into the sea, but was suspended aloft, and at the same time carried along by a wind which struck and filled the sails.  For a whole week we pursued our airy course, and on the eighth day descried land; it was an island with air for sea, glistening, spherical, and bathed in light. We reached it, cast anchor, and landed.”  One small step for Lucian, one giant leap for fiction.
        And what did Lucian and his crew discover on the moon?  More than dust, I assure you.  First of all, this is a Roman epic, so of course there was an epic battle — between the Moonite army of Horse-vultures, Salad-wings, Millet-throwers, Garlic-men, Flea-archers, and Wind-coursers, all with helmets made of beans, against the armies of the Sun, consisting of Horse-ants, Sky-gnats, Sky-pirouetters who slung monstrous radishes at long range, Stalk-fungi, Dog-acorns, and Cloud-centaurs.  There were even more amazing creatures, but as Lucian scrupulously reported, “I did not actually see them; and a description from hearsay I am not prepared to give, as the marvels related of them put some strain on belief.”  They all fought on a battlefield spun by giant spiders between the Moon and the Morning Star.  Eventually the Sunites built a wall of cloud to eclipse the Moon, which forced the Moonite king to negotiate for peace.
        Lucian included in his report a detailed description of the inhabitants of the Moon.  They ate the smoke of roasted flying moon-frogs, and they had tails which were large, unbreakable cabbages.  They could open and shut their bellies and use them to keep things in, and their eyes were removable.  Lucian asserted, “Any one who doubts the truth of this statement has only to go there himself, to be assured of my veracity.”  Admittedly, these things were not witnessed by later astronauts who did go there themselves, but perhaps they were all around on the far side at the time.  Or, of course, much can change in eighteen centuries.
        After Lucian and his crew returned to Earth, they had a number of further adventures.  They spent quite a while inside a whale 200 miles long, landed on and ate of an island of cheese, spent time on the Isle of Dreams, fought with Pumpkin-pirates, sailed across a water bridge between two seas with an empty chasm dividing them, and much more.  Whether they ever did return home we’ll never know, because the promised sequel appears never to have been written.  But at least Lucian must have arrived somewhere where he could publish what he had written so far.
        Translations of True History are available on-line in several places.  Here are two versions: The True History, translated by Fowler, Oxford, and Oxford 1905; A True Story translated by A.M. Harmon, 1913.  It isn’t long, and it’s a lot of fun, so you can read it yourself easily enough.

[Pictures: Suddenly a waterspout came upon them, drawing by Ruth Cobb from Chatterbox Children’s Annual, 1926 (Image from Lady Meerkat);
Battle between Moon and Sun, woodcut from Dutch edition of The True History, 1647 (Image from Torque Control);
Sea bridge, illustration by A. Payne Garnett from Lucian’s Wonderland, 1899 (Image from Google Books.)]

April 10, 2015

Caldecott Books with Printmaking

        Today I’ve got for you a list of all the Caldecott Medal books that are illustrated with printmaking techniques.  I meant to have this post in time to celebrate Randolph Caldecott’s birthday on March 22, but many of the books on the list were available only through inter-library loan, and it took me a while to get hold of them all.  (It is rather interesting that these books are supposed to be among the best of the best, and yet many of them have utterly disappeared off library shelves.)  I’ve tried to describe primarily the printmaking, but of course I can’t help giving more general reviews while I’m at it.  What I haven’t discussed at all is the writing.  This is strictly about the illustrations.  That’s why I’ve listed the illustrator and not the author (although for quite a few of these books they are one and the same.)
        As you can see, there was a lull in block-printed books receiving any honors in the 1980s and 1990s, but there’s been a bit of a resurgence in the 2000s, which I find very exciting.  I’ve listed them in chronological order.

Dick Whittington and His Cat, Marcia Brown (linoleum block prints) 1951 honor
        I think these are my favorite of Brown’s block print illustrations, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of Brown coming up.  They’re clearly inspired by early renaissance wood block prints and have lots of cool details.  They’re done with a black block and a mustardy-brown tone block.  I don’t always like the tone, but in some of the pictures it’s used to excellent effect.  For example, I especially like how it subtly shows sea serpents in the ocean under the ship.

The House That Jack Built, Antonio Frasconi (woodcut, color) 1959 honor
        Black wood block prints overlaid with flat planes of rather harsh, too-bright color, there’s also one page (the dog) that looks like a glue collagraph rather than a carving.  See my post on Frasconi and you won’t be surprised that my favorite pages are the ones with the church, house, and barn.  I don’t like the people as much.

Once a Mouse, Marcia Brown (woodcut) 1962 winner
        Multi-block wood block prints, pure and simple!  Each page has two or three colors, sometimes with a white background, sometimes with backgrounds full of carving and visible woodgrain.  I don’t really like the colors, or the way they look where they overlap, but I do like the hermit’s face, and the fact that the carved wood is celebrated.

Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes, Philip Reed (wood engraving) 1964 honor
        This collection of nursery rhymes is illustrated in very traditional style, with relatively small individual pictures for each rhyme.  Reed’s wood engravings, however, have a good deal of humor and charm.  The colors are separate wood blocks, so they have texture, too.  Perhaps most amazing about this book is that there is slight embossing of the pages - the book was printed in the printing shop of the illustrator himself, apparently from the actual blocks!

Tom Tit Tot, Evaline Ness (woodcut) 1966 honor
        I can’t complain about lack of woodcarviness in these illustrations, but I can complain about the colors, which are often layered somewhat gratuitously, and the people’s skin is light blue, for some reason.  There are some interesting touches, like the pattern on the woman’s dress apparently made by stamping a screw head, and the text punctuated with exclamations that are in large carved lettering.  I also like the “impet” who plays the Rupelstiltskin-equivalent title role in the story, but on the whole these illustrations seem rather ugly to me.

One Wide River to Cross, Ed Emberly (woodcut) 1967 honor
        This one is a lot of fun, just straight-up black wood block prints of funny animals and delightfully busy patterns.  My only complaint is that the pages are colored, and while the bright rainbow colors may jazz things up and add to the rainbow theme of the story (Noah’s Ark), some of the background colors are so saturated that I can’t enjoy the details of the woodcuts as much as I’d like.  I’d have preferred plain black and white until the rainbow page, or even just light, pastel colors to set off the black ink.

Drummer Hoff, Ed Emberly (woodcut) 1968 winner
        The black woodcuts are full of rambunctious geometric patterns, lines swooping and zigzagging every which way and filling every space of the objects.  This, combined with the flat, vivid colors that fill in the objects, gives it almost a mosaic look.  As a kid I remember not particularly liking the stylized look of the people (I suppose I wasn’t much interested in army men, either) but now I do appreciate how fun it must have been to carve them!

A Story, A Story, Gail E. Haley (woodcut) 1971 winner
        Perhaps it’s just the reproduction, but the block printed shapes look completely flat, almost more as if they were done by computer than really carved, inked, and pressed onto paper.  There are areas that must be wood grain, but they look like the contrast was cranked up on photoshop.  Details are drawn in with ink.

If All the Seas Were One Sea, Janina Domanska (etchings, colored overlays) 1972 honor
        This one is cool.  I’m not sure whether its very modern-art-y illustrations appeal to children, but I enjoy them very much with their stylized shapes and rich geometrical patterns.  I especially like the title page, with its lovely lettering that really looks etched and inked, and its funny octopus-squid thing, who shows up on some of the other pages, too.

Shadow, Marcia Brown (collage, woodcuts, acrylics) 1983 winner
        These illustrations use a combination of techniques, mostly collaged painted paper, but also layered printing.  It’s especially noticible in the areas where the printing has been done with light-colored ink over dark paper.  I think this book is totally creepy and I imagine it would give a kid nightmares!

Snowflake Bentley, Mary Azarian (woodcut, watercolor) 1999 winner
        The wood block prints in black are painted in with watercolor.  A fair amount of the detail, not just the color, is provided by the watercolor, with its emphasis on the snow, which is largely white with watercolored blue shadows.  The large central picture on each page flanked by narrower borders give the pages interest and scope for a variety of woodcuts.  (I’m a big fan of Azarian’s work, and you can see more about her here.)

My Friend Rabbit, Eric Rohmann (colored relief prints) 2003 winner
        Black printed outlines, bright painted colors, bold and cartoony in style.  These illustrations are charming, with lots of movement and action and a generally happy vibe.

Ella Sarah Gets Dressed, Margaret Chodos-Irvine (“print-making techniques”) 2004 honor
        The printing in these illustrations is clearest in the background wallpaper patterns, where it actually looks like ink.  In some places you can see other printing, for example the rickrack trim on Ella Sarah’s sleeves, which appears to be real fabric rick-rack, inked and pressed.  There are no black outlines in these pictures, making them all about the bright, bold shapes. (You can see more by Chodos-Irvine and her printmaking technique here.)

The Song of the Waterboatman, Beckie Prange (wood-block, watercolor) 2006 honor
        Another with black wood block print outlines painted with watercolor.  Lovely rich colors make it look almost like stained glass.  Interesting views and details make these illustrations a delight to spend time with.  I love Prange’s work in all her books, but haven’t gotten around to doing a post on her yet.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Erin E. Stead (woodblock, pencil) 2011 winner
        The solid filled-in areas are printed with wood blocks, while the details and textures are drawn in on top with pencil.  Wood grain is visible in treetops, for example, but the over-all impression of these illustrations is of sketching rather than carving.  Also, I don’t care for the colors, which brings me full circle to some of the oldest books on the list!  (You can see Stead’s process here.)

        Not quite printmaking, but worth mentioning:
Song of Robin Hood, Virginia Lee Burton (scratchboard) 1948 honor
Just Me, Marie Hall Ets (paper batik) 1966 honor
        Ets illustrated four Caldecott honor books with a technique she called paper batik.  It’s black and white and looks very much like monoprinting.
Duke Ellington, Brian Pinkney (scratchboard with paint) 1999 honor
Swimmy, Leo Lionni (watercolor, rubber stamp, pencil) 1964 honor
        These illustrations are watercolors, but Lionni does use a stamp of some kind (presumably rubber) to add lots of tiny minnows to his pictures.  Lionni has done other books with some printmaking, too, notably The Alphabet Tree, which uses stamping for the tree’s leaves.
The House in the Night, Krommes (scratchboard, watercolor) 2009 winner
        (See my previous post on Krommes.)

        As the technology of book printing advanced and more types of illustration could be faithfully reproduced, it isn’t surprising that printmaking has become a less common technique.  I’m delighted, however, to see that it’s still getting some well-deserved love.  And as the “dull and dated” reputation of block printing is wiped away by more recent illustrators, I expect there will be many beautiful examples of block-printed picture books to come.

[Pictures: The hermit and the mouse, wood block print by Marcia Brown from Once A Mouse, 1962;
Noah’s Ark, wood block print byEd Emberly from One Wide River to Cross,  1967;
Rabbit getting help, watercolor painted wood block print by Eric Rohmann from My Friend Rabbit,  2003;
Elephant and Mr McGee, woodcut with multiple blocks and pencil by Erin E. Stead from A Sick Day for Amos McGee, 2011.]

April 7, 2015


        I have to confess that I’ve always thought unicorns were sort of useless.  I mean, so you stick a horn on a horse’s head - so what?  Well, it’s true that unicorns have some useful properties, notably that their horns can purify poisoned water and heal sickness.  It would certainly be worth having a unicorn around for that alone.  Assuming it makes every sort of water safe to drink, whether poisoned, polluted, or otherwise contaminated, it would be handy to take traveling, too.  So perhaps my failure to appreciate unicorns in my childhood stemmed from a lack of practicality.
        According to the ancient Greeks, unicorns hail from India and are white, red, and black.  I think that’s all at once, not three different varieties.  Most ancient sources also describe their horns as black, contrary to our common modern view.  It must be the northern European species of unicorn that’s all white with a white horn.  Pliny accuses the unicorn of having feet like an elephant, but I’m thinking Pliny was confusing the unicorn with some other one-horned animals, perhaps a rhinoceros, because really, elephant feet on a unicorn would just be silly.
        In the 6th century Cosmos Indicopleustes reported something interesting about unicorns, “When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.”  That would be something to see!  That’s also why, as everyone knows, if you want to catch a unicorn you have to bait it with a virgin.  Leonardo da Vinci described the method, and I believe (as I’ve discovered in research for a sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors) that he was reporting from eye-witness.  What he describes and what we’re always shown is maidens charming unicorn stallions, but presumably a virgin youth could catch a unicorn mare?  No one seems to have commented on that, so I 
recommend some experiments be done.  In the meantime, the other method of capturing unicorns, described by William Shakespeare, is to stand in front of a tree, goad the beast into charging, and step aside at the last minute so that the unicorn gets its horn stuck in the trunk.  I picture the hunter waving a red matador’s cape in front of the tree and quipping, “Eh, what’s up, Doc?”
        Of course, most known unicorn horns around today are really narwhal horns.  I would love to have a narwhal horn for my cabinet of curiosities, but trade in them is banned or limited in many countries.  This is a good thing, lest narwhals become as rare and mythical as land unicorns.
        There are many many depictions of unicorns in art, from the kitschy to the sublime, so I’ve chosen just a couple of particularly nice old wood block prints for you.

[Pictures: The Unicorn, woodcut from The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell, 1658 (Image from University of Houston Libraries);
Woodcut title page of Hore dive virginis Marie, published by Thielman Kerver, 1511 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
From Perigrinatio in terram sanctum, woodcut by Erhard Reuwich, 1486 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art).]

April 3, 2015

Birds and Beasts by Mankes

        Jan Mankes (Dutch, 1889-1920) died young, after having lived somewhat apart from the art centers of the time.  He did landscapes and portraits of intimates, and a lot of farm animals, and his woodcuts include lots of crows and chickens.  In particular he has quite a variety of different styles among the pieces I looked at, from rough to intricate, some with white backgrounds and only black outlines, some the reverse with black backgrounds and only a bit of white, many with lots of texture.  But rather than try to show you a whole range, I’ll just give you a few of my favorites.
        The hen’s background is interesting; it looks much blacker than the black ink on other parts of the print, such as between the bits of straw on the ground.  It looks like someone (presumably 
Mankes, but you never know) actually painted in the background to make it as black as possible.  In any case, I like the pattern of the feathers, and the rather unusual viewpoint, from the front instead of the side.
        The hedgehog has no background at all, just solid black, and he’s composed of nothing but the fine carved lines of his texture.  The difference in gouges - short, spaced lines or very fine densely packed lines - perfectly suggest the differences between the prickles and the fur.
        I like the blackness of the crow against the texture of the background.  The bottom half could reasonably be ground of some sort, but the top half of the background doesn’t seem to be representational.  It’s just something that’s neither black nor white to offset the crow.
        Finally, this goat has a much more detailed representative background.  It’s clearly standing among plants, with even a branch or sapling behind it.  On the other hand, its face looks a little more stylized than the other animals’.
        Mankes was a new discovery for me, and I’m glad to have made the acquaintance of his birds and beasts.  I’m sorry he wasn’t able to have 50 more years of wood block printing for the world.

[Pictures: Zilverwyandotte, wood block print by Jan Mankes, 1917;
Egel, wood block print by Mankes, c 1916;
Schreeuwende kraai, wood block print by Mankes, 1918;
Geitje, wood block print by Mankes, 1915 (All images from Rijksbureau V. Kunsthistorische Documentatie).]