May 30, 2017

Words of the Month - The Brass Tacks on Rhyming Slang

        Any time you chew the fat, get down to brass tacks, or blow a raspberry, you’re using rhyming slang.  Originating probably around the 1840s in London’s East End, (or possibly Seven Dials - origins of slang are always hard to pin down), rhyming slang is based on word replacement.  The pattern usually goes like this: 1. replace the word you mean with a short phrase that rhymes with that word.  For example, if you mean feet you might say plates of meat.  2. Often the actual rhyming word begins to be dropped so that you just say plates, thus obscuring the reference still further for anyone who isn’t in the know.  3.  Occasionally the new slang word is subjected to the process again.  Instead of plates, people could say “barrels and crates,” which would then be shortened to “barrels”… “Sit down and put your barrels up!”
        The rhyming phrases are often proper nouns, with place names common in the nineteenth century, and names of figures in popular culture becoming more common in the twentieth.  Usually the rhyming phrase is quite random and unrelated to the original word, as in apples (from apples and pears) for stairs.  However, sometimes the rhyming phrase is perceived as having a logical connection or making a statement about the original word, as trouble and strife meaning wife or God forbids meaning kids.
        No one knows for sure whether rhyming slang was developed as a game, as a way to separate outsiders from the group, or as a criminal cant.  I’d guess that all three factors contributed.  At any rate, the creativity and wit of it have fascinated outsiders almost since the beginning, and popular culture has made much reference to rhyming slang, especially in the portrayal of Cockney speech.  Most interesting to me are the examples of words that originated as rhyming slang but now have become fully understood and accepted in ordinary speech (still as slang, for the most part, but not seen as dialectal).  Here are some familiar words and phrases that I hadn’t realized had their origins in rhyming slang.

Chew the fat rhymes with have a chat.

Bread is short for bread and honey, which rhymes with money.

Plonk is short for plinkety plonk, which rhymes with vin blanc, meaning cheap wine.

Get down to brass tacks - Brass tacks rhymes with facts (or at least they rhyme in the original dialect).

My dogs are tired - Dogs is short for dog’s meat, which rhymes with feet.

Blow a raspberry - Raspberry is short for raspberry tart, which rhymes with fart.

Rabbit on about nothing - Rabbit is short for rabbit and pork, which rhymes with talk (in the original dialect, anyway).

Use your loaf - Loaf is short for loaf of bread, which rhymes with head.

Put up your dukes, and duke it out! - Dukes is short for Duke of Yorks, which rhymes with forks, which is eighteenth century slang meaning hands.

        It’s very tempting to devise new rhyming slang of your own, but unfortunately, like any word-coining, it doesn’t work if no one else understands you!  What new words would you devise if you could?

[Pictures: Himbeere (Rasberry), wood block print from 1783 edition of Kräuterbuch by Adam Lonicer, first published 1557 (Image from Heinrich Heine Universität);
The First Position, or setting-to, engraving from The Modern Art of Boxing by Daniel Mendoza, 1790 (Image from Scribd).]

May 26, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Fantastic Arch

        This twelfth century carved stone arch from France now resides in the Met Cloisters in New York.  It is its own mini bestiary, including wonderful depictions of some of our old fantasy favorites.  From left to right we get a manticore, a pelican (not fantasy, but a staple of medieval mythology), a basilisk/cockatrice, a harpy, a griffin, a wyvern, a centaur, and a lion (also not fantasy, of course).  The anonymous artist or artists who produced these carvings had a sure hand and a great eye for detail.  I love the textures of feathers, scales, and fur, and the botanical flourishes on the lower planes of the arch.  My favorite thing, however, is the care put into the creatures’ tails, an appendage that might have been an afterthought for lesser artists.  The manticore, basilisk, and wyvern all have serpent-headed tails.  The wyvern seems almost to be consulting with his tail’s head, and the basilisk sharing an affectionate kiss with his, but the wyvern’s tail is biting him on the bum!  Meanwhile the harpy and centaur have tails sprouting into luxuriant flourishes of foliage, and the lion’s tail looks like one of those electrostatic dusters as seen on TV, a very useful beast.  These are tails worth telling!

[Picture: Arch with eight animals, marble carving by anonymous sculptor, c 1150-75 (Image from The Met).]

May 23, 2017

Overheard on a Saltmarsh

        We’ve had a long run of relief prints and now it’s definitely time for a fantasy poem.  This is one I encountered as a child that really caught my imagination.  The title Overheard on a Saltmarsh sets the scene and tells us all that we know of context.  That’s part of the fun of the poem: it isn’t a whole story; it’s just a rare passing glimpse of that other world that most of us never see or hear at all.
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin.  Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
Give them me.  Give them me.

Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.
I will howl in a deep lagoon
For your green glass beads.  I love them so.
Give them me.  Give them.

        Why is the goblin so entranced by the beads?  How did a nymph steal beads from the moon?  Did the anonymous narrator see the beads?  Or the nymph or goblin?  Or only hear the voices at dusk, hidden among the grass?  What will happen next?  
        This was first published in 1920 by the poet Harold Monro, who is hardly a household name these days, but who was apparently an influential editor and a mentor to many other poets.  According to one literary historian, “Perhaps no one did more for the advancement of twentieth-century poetry.”  Be that as it may, this particular poem seems magical to me precisely because of its seeming modernity and straightforwardness.  The characters aren’t discussing some mythical artifact of precious gems, a crown or a magical sword.  They don’t speak “ye olde” language.  It’s a simple necklace of green glass beads - and yet to them it is magical, and they are magical to us, and the scene is a magical glimpse into a world that is strange, mysterious, other, and yet exists just beside our own everyday paths.  You never know - you might encounter it at any time.

[Picture: Cranes in the Mist, color woodblock print by Andrea Rich, 2008 (Image from Andrea Rich Woodcuts);
Moon at Dawn, color woodcut by Micah Schwaberow, 2016 (Image from Annex Galleries).]
Quotation by Dominic Hibberd from Wikipedia.

May 19, 2017

Block Printmakers Zorach

        To end the A-Z Challenge with a bang, I have for you today a Two-for-the-Price-of-One deal.  William and Marguerite Zorach were an art power couple who were among the first artists to introduce cubism, fauvism, and European modernist styles into American modernism.  William (Lithuania/USA, 1887-1966) was actually given Zorach as his first name at birth, but it was changed when he went to school in the USA.  He and Marguerite (USA, 1887-1968) adopted Zorach as their family name when they married in 1912.
        Neither was primarily a printmaker, although William Z did somewhat more, but I have selected a couple of pieces from each of them.  You can see that they share a style.  Compare these first two pieces, one by each of them, yet with the same white on black, the same breaking up of the nude bodies into defined areas of musculature, the same tipped narrow oval heads, and even the same circle-within-a-diamond shape in the upper center.  My husband D is not an artist, and I’m fascinated by the idea of what it would be like sharing art so intimately with a life partner.  However, this level of similarity may be sharing a little too much for me!  I think I like a little more personal variation.
        Here’s one by William Z.  I like the way mother and child are embracing, and I like the fish in the stylized water, but what I like best is the view of Provincetown, Massachusetts in the background, with its waterfront houses, mounding trees, and Pilgrim Monument tower on the high ground.  (The tower, which was completed in 1910, was only six years old when William Z printed this image.)  There’s something rather funny going on with the sail, which appears to be transparent except at the very top, but I don’t mind; I think it succeeds in suggesting a sailboat just fine, and I like being able to see the buildings.
        And here’s one by Marguerite Z.  It’s much later than the others, and was made as a Christmas card, so I’m guessing Marguerite Z viewed it as more casual than the “real Art.”  This impression is also imperfectly printed, as you can see on the ziz-zaggy triangle in the middle.  However, I find the leaping deer rather pleasing - what can I say, I do tend to like prints of animals better than people!

        Here’s my only other Z printmaker:
        And thus concludes the 2017 A-Z Challenge!

[Pictures: Provincetown Players, linoleum block print by Marguerite Zorach, c 1915;
Swimmer, metal relief cut by William Zorach, c 1915 (Images from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Sailing Provincetown, linocut by William Zorach, 1916 (Image from the Cleveland Museum of Art);
Christmas Card, linoleum block print by Marguerite Zorach, 1963 (Image from Phillips Museum of Art).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter Z

May 17, 2017

Block Printmaker Yamanaka

        When I decided to feature Gen Yamanaka (Japan, b 1954) today, and was searching around for more images of his work, I recognized one.  Turns out I actually have posted a piece from him before, but only as a thumbnail.  So today I have that piece again, big enough to appreciate better, and a couple of others, each of which has a slightly different sort of style (though they all have the same horizon).
        Yamanaka belongs, according to one biography, “to a leading group of contemporary Japanese woodblock artists who are guided by pure abstractions and symbolic representations of contemporary life.”  This first piece definitely looks symbolic of something - perhaps the isolation of modern life or something.  But I’m not so sure about the others!  So let’s forget meaning and look at technique.
        There’s a slightly different ink effect on each of these pieces.  On the first, you can see the marks of the ink being painted onto the block, leaving brush strokes.  The use of opaque white ink in places adds to a feeling of paintiness.  In the second piece, by contrast, the wood grain in the “sky” is quite clear, and there is some bleeding of color around the “figures,” which imply a very thin, watery ink.  On the other hand, perhaps the effect was artificially achieved by double printing a slightly smaller area over a slightly larger one in order to leave a thin border; I can’t quite tell.  As for the third piece, it looks almost more like a paper collage with its totally flat, geometric shapes.  Adding to the effect is the use of opaque white ink instead of allowing uninked paper to be the image’s white.
        Once again, this artist is almost exactly contemporary with the previous two (W and X), but working in a completely different milieu, and with a completely different style.
        Looks like if you don’t count Yamanaka himself, I have previously featured one Y printmaker:
Young, Sarah

[Pictures: The Night Piece I, color woodblock by Gen Yamanaka, 1985 (Image from the Verne Collection);
White Night, color woodcut by Yamanaka, 1990 (Image from the Cleveland Museum of Art);
Seven Houses, color woodcut by Yamanaka, 2014 (Image from the Verne Collection).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter Y

May 15, 2017

Block Printmaker Xu

        Xu Bing (China, b 1955) is an eclectic artist famous for large-scale installations in a variety of media, but he has a background in printmaking and often returns to it.  This first piece is an early one, wholly representational although stylized.  It almost suggests a schematic, with its electric wires across the top and water shore across the bottom, and the buildings arranged in a higgelty-piggelty grid filling the space between.  I like the rhythm of it.
        The second two pieces are both parts of Five Series of Repetitions, in which (as far as I can make out from various descriptions) 20 blocks were printed on a double-sided scroll.  Many of Xu’s works are large, multi-part installation pieces with grand philosophical meaning, although I couldn’t tell you what the meaning is.  But I like the tadpoles, especially in this season of vernal pools in my neck of the woods.  In the third piece, the rows of small plants resemble Chinese characters, a recurring theme that Xu has explored in many ways throughout his career.  In both of these pieces you can see that Xu was making a shift from representation toward more abstract and conceptual art.
        Xu has been something of a darling of the art world, even receiving a MacArthur “genius grant,” but I find that I like some of his work very much, while some I very much dislike.  These relatively small, straightforward wood block prints aren’t the sort of thing that makes him famous, but I judge an artist by his block prints!

        And here’s my sole previously featured X printmaker:

[Pictures: Shang Cheng (Mountain City), woodcut by Xu Bing, 1982 (Image from Booklyn);
Life Pond, woodcut by Xu, 1987;
Moving Clouds, woodcut by Xu, 1987 (Images from Ashmolean).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter X

May 12, 2017

Block Printmaker Whitman

        Karen Whitman (USA, 1953 -) was born in New York City and that city is her chief inspiration.  Her scenes, therefore, tend to be very crowded and busy with a great use of interesting and varied patterns to differentiate between different areas.  I am especially drawn to her night scenes without people, which give that bittersweet feeling of being alone in a crowd.  The stark blacks and bright whites of night scenes are a great match with block prints, as are the strong shapes and contrasting textures of architecture.
        This first piece is very characteristic of Whitman’s work, with its rooftop water tower against a backdrop of city skyline and night sky.  Like many of her pieces, although there are no visible people, there are implied people.  Someone’s cat rests on the armchair they’ve put out on the roof, while an airplane crosses the sky, its own separate world.
        Next a more vertiginous view downwards into the space between buildings.  I love how the  tree and the water tower’s shadow are depicted without outlines, and purely by absence - a tree grows in the spaces between carved lines.  I always envy that look, but can’t quite seem to trust my carving enough to get there myself.
        The one light sky in this bunch is particularly interesting and impressionistic, perhaps even expressionistic.  Spots are an unusual choice for sky, but they work for van Gogh, and they work here.  The somewhat oppressive feeling is increased by the angle of the buildings and signposts.  Notice that all the signs and lights are shutting off the viewer.  On the other hand, I like the pigeons watching over the scene like benign spirits.

        Finally, another rooftop view with jumbled angles and even rather Seussian curves to the architecture.  There’s another cat, and for extra credit spot the water tower - there’s one in each of today’s pieces.  I confess I really like water towers, too!

        And here is my collection of W printmakers from prior posts:
Wormell, Christopher (no single post on Wormell, but his prints are sprinkled throughout this blog.  To find them all, search on his name in the “Search This Blog” feature in the sidebar.)

[Pictures: Moonlit Tower, linoleum cut by Karen Whitman, 2009;
Airshaft, linoleum cut by Whitman, 2003;
One Way, linoleum cut by Whitman, 2007;
Towers, linoleum cut by Whitman, 2000
(All images from The Old Print Shop).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter W

May 10, 2017

Block Printmaker Van der Vossen

        André van der Vossen (Netherlands, 1893-1963) was more-or-less a contemporary of the previous two artists, which shows what a wide variety of relief block printmaking was going on in the first half of the twentieth century.  And Van der Vossen provides plenty of variety all on his own.  I’ve picked today’s pieces to highlight some of that variety, and in addition to these he also designed Dutch paper currency with yet another sort of look.
        The first is my favorite, a nice clutter of black and white shapes, all about areas rather than lines.  There’s a drawbridge, cheek by jowl with a laundry line, hanging right smack against the houses, which are jammed tight against the ships in the background.  And a fun detail: you can see that the little person near the ships is wearing wooden shoes.
        There’s a lot more detail in this image of men in a boarding house, and there’s somewhat more shading, although you still get the same impression of crowdedness.  The men’s faces are a little stiff, but they have nice individual character behind their mustaches!
        An altogether different look is this bold design from a poster advertising an art exhibit.  I can’t say I like it so much, but it represents Van der Vossen’s interest in “modern” art.  I like the hand clutching art supplies, and the staring eye is certainly intense, even if I do have to wonder about the vertical pupil!  But after all, why worry about that when realism obviously wasn’t his priority here.
        And finally a fun scene of the animals gathered by Adam.  This was published as the illustration to a poem and it definitely has a look as if for children with its cute, chunky creatures and its touches of color.  Personally, I’d like it better without those colored accent blocks, but it’s still an enjoyable piece.  I especially like the cow’s face turned toward us, the pig, and the ape.  The giraffe is looking adorably askance about something behind it, perhaps Adam and Eve disappearing pinkly toward the side of the picture.  But can anyone identify the thing in the upper right corner that looks like a sea cucumber with rabbit ears up in a tree?

        Here is the slim digest of V printmakers previously featured in this blog:

[Pictures: Volendam, wood block print by André van der Vossen (Image from Kunstveiling);
Bij Tante Leen in ‘Het Witte Pard’, woodcut by Van der Vossen, 1929 (Image from Haffmans Kunst en Antiekhandel);
Tentoonstelling, lithograph reproduction of woodcut design by Van der Vossen, c 1920 (Image from Colletti Gallery);
Adam and the Animals, colored woodcut by Van der Vossen, (Image from University of Pretoria).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter V

May 8, 2017

Block Printmaker Urushibara

        Yoshijiro Urushibara (Japan, 1889-1953) travelled to London in 1910 to demonstrate Japanese woodcut printing at an Anglo-Japanese Exhibition.  He stuck around thereafter and spent most of his working life in England and France collaborating with several European artists until returning to Japan in 1940.  He made a number of Japanese-style prints based on designs by European artists, but the ones I’ve chosen for today are, as far as the [possibly incomplete] record indicates, his own designs as well as execution.
        Although Urushibara always made color prints, I’ve chosen one in which the colors are exclusively different greys, thus giving more of a black and white sensibility.  The block of buildings on the right looks a bit like cut out stage scenery, but I really like the bridge and foreground.

        I absolutely love this owl, so deceptively simple.  The owl is silhouetted without any detail, but the complex branches of the tree require multiple blocks for their different shades of grey.  I love the coloring of the sky, and also how the wood grain shows, contributing to the halo around the moon, but also reminding us that this is made with wood.

        Alas, I don’t appear to have any previous U printmakers to share.

[Pictures: Ponte Santa Paternina, Venice, color wood block print by Yoshijiro Urushibara;
Night Owl, color wood block print by Urushibara (Images from Urushibara woodblock web site).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter U

May 5, 2017

Block Printmaker Taylor

        Charles William Taylor (UK, 1878-1960) was a watercolorist as well as a wood engraver, and in both media he was extremely competent and fairly conventional.  I might not have chosen him for my T printmaker, except that you can clearly see, if you note the other T printmakers below, that “Taylor” is obviously the single most important name in all of relief printmaking, and not to feature a Taylor would be a terrible omission.  As far as I know, none of these Taylors is related to any other, so it’s evidently the name itself that’s significant.
        To say that this particular Taylor was competent and conventional, though, is not intended as damning with faint praise.  I think his landscapes have a really nice sense of depth which draws the viewer in and makes the scenes feel quite spacious.  The empty white skies perhaps contribute to this feel, and large white areas are very unusual in wood engraving because the usual tools make very small lines rather than wide gouges.  But moreover there’s also a particular intensity in the foreground details.  These are not especially large blocks - the third, for example, is 8.5 by 6.25 inches - so to make them capture great depth and space is really quite an impressive feat.

        Here are the links to the Taylors and other previously-featured T printmakers:

[Pictures: Lamberhurst, woodcut or wood engraving by Charles William Taylor, before 1930 (Image from Thomas Shahan flickr);
Chanctonbury Ring, wood engraving by Taylor (Image from Modern Printmakers)
Somewhere in Wales, woodcut by Taylor, mid 1920s (Image from V&A).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter T

If you’re in the greater Boston area, come see my block prints and many other artists at Needham Open Studios tomorrow and/or Sunday!

May 3, 2017

Block Printmaker Schäufelein

        Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (Germany, c 1480-1540) studied under Michael Wohlgemut of Nuremberg Chronicle fame, and was an assistant and imitator of Albrecht Dürer.  He did many of the usual images of the Life of Christ so popular at the time, but I’ve included his Ascension here because it strikes me as unusual and unusually fun.  Jesus is floating right up out of the frame of the picture as he ascends so that only his feet are still showing, which really tickles me.  You can see his footprints still on the rock from before take-off.  I don’t know whether Schäufelein came up with this composition himself, or whether it was a common way of depicting the Ascension, but I can’t recall having seen one like it before.
        Today’s second piece is one in my own collection, my parents having bought it back in the early days of their marriage, identified as by Schäufelein but without further information.  My father found it listed in a print collection with the title “Outdoor Feast with a Prince and His Wife,” undated.  When I first tried to research it I found a reproduction titled “Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Height of his Power,” still
undated.  Neither of these was very satisfactory.  So I’m quite pleased that I’ve finally tracked it down and discovered that it is the last panel in an epic 4-panel illustration of Judith and Holofernes.  Judith was a favorite subject of renaissance artists, what with sex, violence, and religion all in one hit.  To summarize, Judith’s city is under siege, so she seduces the enemy general and then chops off his head, thus saving her people.  The beheading scene is the third panel in this spread, so our scene of the couple in the tent might be part of the seduction, or if the picture is to be read chronologically, then it must be the celebrating afterwards.  I still don’t know whether this four-block scene was simply made to be a free-standing image, or whether it was part of some larger project, although it looks like Schäufelein did make several other 4-panel Biblical scenes around the same time.
        One interesting historical note about the state of wood block printmaking in Schäufelein’s day: he was one of at least six artists who contributed designs for the illustrations of a 1517 chivalric novel in verse by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.  The artists were paid 2 gulden for each 3 designs they contributed, and the formschneider, or carver of the wood blocks, was paid 4 gulden per block.  This obviously reflects a belief at the time that the cutting was harder and/or more skilled work.  Certainly it would have been more time-consuming and physically difficult, but nowadays we tend to value the idea of the creativity put into the design more than the technical skill put into the execution, which is why today’s prints are attributed to Schäufelein and not to the anonymous formschneider.

        Here are plenty of other S printmakers for you to revisit:

[Pictures: The Ascension of Christ, woodcut by Hans Schäufelein, 1507 (Image from The British Museum);
The Siege of Bethulia - Judith and Holofernes, set of 4 woodcuts by Schäufelein, c 1530 (Image of complete set from Albertina).]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter S

If you’re in the greater Boston area, come see my block prints, plus many other artists, at Needham Open Studios this coming weekend!

May 1, 2017

Block Printmaker Roddie

        Helen Roddie is a printmaker working in England.  Her prints are complex patterns composed of simplifications of natural forms.  Often she plays around with taking a single plant and repeating it in glorious profusion until it creates a pattern with lots of graphic punch, as in the second two examples here.  She says, “I try to capture both the intricacy and simplicity of organic forms.”  I really like the way she emphasizes the distinctive features of each plant, yet makes them look really bold instead of fiddly.  But I also like the first piece here, where she weaves together multiple species from an ecosystem.  Just as I try to do with my art, Roddie glorifies small, often unnoticed beauties.
        Although she does do some prints with color, she also says, “I enjoy the challenge of translating pen line to print without the use and distraction of colour or subtle shades,” which is exactly one of the things I also really enjoy about relief printmaking.  So while our styles end up looking very different, I feel that Roddie and I have a lot in common in our approach and attitudes toward printmaking.  It’s really cool to see how someone with such a kindred sense of art creates pieces so wonderfully different from my own.
        Here, as promised, are lots of previously-featured R printmakers:

[Pictures: Passing Meadows, linocut by Helen Roddie;
Ladders to Heaven, linocut by Roddie;
Ribwort Weave, linocut by Roddie (All images from]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter R
(The A-Z Challenge is now officially over, everyone else having reached Z on the last day of April, but I will continue to work my way through the remainder of the alphabet at my slower pace.)

If you’re in the greater Boston area, come see me and many other artists at Needham Open Studios this coming weekend!