October 31, 2017

Words of the Month - Biblical English

        Today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s kick-off in Germany.  (See the previous post for more on Martin Luther and printmaking.)  For purposes of the English language, however, the important Reformation date is 1534 when King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the church in England instead of the pope.  Thereupon Henry ordered the first authorized English translation of the Bible.  (Previous English translations had been illegal.)  Several English translations followed, but the most famous, long-lasting, beloved, and influential English text of the Bible is certainly the version authorized by King James I.  The work began in 1604 and was completed in 1611, and has had a tremendous influence on the idioms of the English language ever since.
        Contemporary with William Shakespeare, that other paramount influence on English’s catchy phrases, the King James Bible (aka the Authorised Version) nevertheless contrasts widely with Shakespeare’s work.  For one thing, its poetic beauty, rather than being the product of a lone genius’s fertile mind, was the work of a committee of 47 scholars and a long process of sub-committees and group decisions.  Secondly, where Shakespeare is famed for the wild ingenuity of his language, his huge vocabulary, his gleeful embrace of fire-new words and words he made up himself, the King James Bible was written with a deliberately narrow vocabulary and somewhat old-fashioned language, so as to be sure everyone could understand it easily.  Yet its committee of scholars made enduring, beloved poetry with their vocabulary only a quarter the size of Shakespeare’s, and the KJV’s language has become so deeply embedded in everyday English that we quote it unknowingly all the time.
        Of course, we frequently quote the Bible knowingly, too.  Most speakers are probably aware that the following idioms are Biblical:
   Let there be light (Genesis 1:3)
   an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38)
   Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9)
   Thou shalt not… (Exodus 20)

        But even more telling are those phrases that many people don’t even realize have their origins in the seventeenth century Bible.
   a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15 “a drop of a bucket”)
   all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22)
   at their wit’s end (Psalms 107:27)
   to eat, and to drink, and to be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
   fight the good fight (Timothy 6:12)
   heart’s desire (Psalms 21:2)
   labor of love (Thessalonians 1:3, Hebrews 6:10)
   a man after his own heart (Samuel 1:14, Acts 13:22)
   no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
   nothing but skin and bones (Job 19:20)
   out of the mouth of babes (Psalm 8:2, Matthew 21:16)
   physician, heal thyself (Luke 4:23)
   put the words in her mouth (2 Samuel 14:3)
   the root of the matter (Job 19:28)
   see eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8)
   the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3)
   stumbling block (Ezekial 3:20, 1 Corinthians 1:23)
   suffer fools gladly (2 Corinthians 11:19)
   two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

        This is just a small sampling, of course.  Plus there are many more famous phrases which the King James Bible reused from previous English translations, such as “I have escaped with the skin of my teeth” and “the powers that be.”  The translators purposely reused phrasings that were familiar to people when they deemed the meaning accurate and the sound appealing.  Although it’s likely that it was the KJV that really popularized these idioms as household words, I haven’t included them in my list because no one can really know for sure.
        You can see that the phrases I’ve listed are used as idioms, not just quotations, because they can be adapted to different situations.  Some of them have had their grammar tweaked to keep up with the language, although I have purposely left out phrases in which the wording in common usage is not substantively what the KJV gave us.  There are lots of English phrases that derive from Biblical stories but which do not use the KJV’s wording, such as “forbidden fruit” and “the writing on the wall,” but the point here is not the influence of the Bible, but the influence of the King James Authorized Translation.  It’s significant, though, that many of these idioms can have their pronouns switched for appropriate reference, and can be played with but still have hearers recognize the original phrase, as in, for example, “He’s not his sister’s keeper.”  That shows they’re alive and active in the language, not just frozen relics.
        Obviously the King James Bible’s language wouldn’t have influenced English so deeply if the Bible were not such a fundamental part of the culture, but I think it’s also true to say that these Biblical verses would not have remained so deeply embedded in the culture if it weren’t for the power of the KJV’s language.

[Pictures: Title page and dedication from a 1613 edition of the King James Bible (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Title page of first folio printing of KJV, 1611 (Image from King James Bible Online, but better information about it at Ohio State University);
Interior page of 1611 edition of KJV (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

October 27, 2017

Luther in Print

        Hallowe’en this year, in four days, is also the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, if you date it from Martin Luther’s public unveiling of his Ninety-Five Theses.  (Fun fact: although we’ve all heard about Luther posting his Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, there is no evidence that he did so.  This is the date, however, on which he sent his Theses to his bishop.)  At any rate, soon after Hallowe’en, copies of the Theses were being printed in several towns in Germany, and within the first few months of 1518 copies were being printed and spread throughout Europe.  Printing was fundamental to the Protestant Reformation - beginning with the fact that the Indulgences which were the straw that broke Luther’s back were being printed by the hundreds of thousands.  (Fun fact: indulgences were among the first documents printed on Gutenberg’s press; he used the income from printing indulgences to fund his big Bible project.)  The Davis Museum at Wellesley College currently has an exhibit of printed materials connected with Luther and the Reformation, and I have a few cool examples to share today.
        First is the frontispiece of A Collection of Sermons by Luther published in 1538.  It’s worth remembering that although the literacy rate was not so high that everyone could read these books for themselves, the number of people the message reached through reading aloud was huge.  As for the wood block print, I think it’s gorgeous.  This is not a large book and the level of detail is wonderful.  The artist, big name Lucas Cranach (c.1472-1553), worked to Luther’s specifications, and the iconography here is all about the principle of “Law and Grace” or “Law and Gospel,” which states that the Old Testament gives God’s law to be followed for ethics, while the New Testament gives God’s grace, which is the only way to salvation (unlike, say, an indulgence).  This illustration was another way of spreading the Protestant message to the illiterate, and Luther and artists such as Cranach worked hard to come up with images that would represent their theology.  You can see Adam and Eve, Moses with his tablets, and devils casting sinners into the flames, as well as the crucifixion, Christ slaying evil, angels, a lamb, and other Christian symbols.  I especially like the tree in the top center getting blasted very dramatically.
        Next up is an edition of Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.  The lush, full-page illustrations here are by Georg Lemberger (c.1495-c.1543) who was clearly inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s series of woodcuts of Revelation.  Again, it’s got great details and marvelous monsters, the Ark of the Covenant sailing in on the upper left, unusually happy angels smiting on the lower right…  But a particularly cool thing about these images is a flaw: each page has left a ghost image on the opposite page, especially visible in the light areas of the left page.  This is because demand for these books was so high and editions were being printed so quickly that the pages were bound before the ink was completely dry and set!
        And finally, here’s a nice version of the Garden of Eden, from another edition of Luther’s translation of the Bible.  I really like all the animals gathered around Adam and Eve, from unicorn and peacock to hedgehog and snail.  I’m particularly pleased that while the Serpent is the villain as always, we are shown an ordinary, uncrowned snake along with all the other happy animals in Eden.  This illustration is attributed to Jost Amman, but I notice that it has initials SF in the block, so I’m guessing another artist must have done it, even if Amman may have been the lead artist for the project.
        Whatever your theology - or your taste in art - there can be no doubt that the Protestant Reformation is a striking example of the power of printing to spread ideas.

[Pictures: Fronstispiece, wood block print by Lucas Cranach from A Collection of Sermons by Martin Luther, 1538;
Scenes from the Apocalypse, wood block prints by Georg Lemberger from New Testament translated by Luther, 1524;
Adam and Eve, wood block print by Jost Amman or anonymous SF from Feyerabend Bible translated by Luther, 1564.  (Images from Davis Museum, photos by AEGN).]

October 24, 2017

Say Goodbye!

        I had a terrific weekend at Roslindale Open Studios and am deeply grateful to all the wonderful people (and several friendly dogs) who came by and stopped to talk, to ask questions, and to report that their nephew loves the book or they enjoy my art in their dining room every evening.  It means a lot to me to hear that past years’ customers are happy!  And of course I also love this year’s customers, and am always pleased to see my “babies” going to good homes.  I’ve mentioned before that I especially like selling firsts and lasts of editions, and this weekend I sold out of six prints, which is almost certainly a record for me.  In celebration, therefore, today’s post is a farewell to those six pieces, which have been taken down from the web site, and will never again have to be matted or framed or hauled up from the basement and carried to a show… or carried back home from a show unsold.

        These six pieces range from some of my very earliest block prints to quite recent, and they represent a range of subject matter.  They include some of my smallest prints and my largest ever; simple images and complex, detailed ones.
        While selling out of these six prints, I carved another block, and made a solid start on carving yet another.  I hope to print the first some time this week, and I have to decide whether to continue carving the second, or to save it to work on at my next show.  It might be hard to wait that long because I’m pretty excited about this block, and the next show is a month away, so I’m thinking I’ll have to keep carving.  I’ll just have to think of something else to work on in November at the Village Fair show.  So despite managing to “get rid of” six pieces, I’ll be replacing them just as quickly.
        Of course, one of the beauties of printing multiples is that I don’t really have to say a final farewell to anything: for every edition I print, I keep one, I give one to my parents, and I sell the rest.  I can have my cake and eat it, too.  It’s a good life!

[Pictures: Visitors at my ROS booth (photo by Amy Joyce);
Three Billy Goats Gruff, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007 (sold out);
Bookby-upon-Shelf, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016 (sold out);
Spear Thistle, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
Sweet Briar, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
Love, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015 (sold out);
Fair Winds, rubber block print by AEGN, carved c 1994, printed 2013 (sold out).]

October 20, 2017

Working Hard

        Tomorrow is Roslindale Open Studios, and on Monday I’m giving a linguistics talk, so I have been hard at work preparing.  Today I also have the hard physical work of hauling my display racks, tables, and boxes of books and art up from the basement and packing them into the car for an early start tomorrow.  So I thought it would be fun to find a block print of workers hauling boxes, maybe stevedores or construction workers.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find what I was thinking of, although I can’t imagine that none exists.  But I did find this wood block print by Mike Goscinsky of Pittsburgh steel workers changing shifts.  I really like its mix of detailed realism and abstracted pattern.  The building at the center is quite realistic, but the two on the sides look stylized, patterned, and almost doodled.  The line of workers are quite finely detailed, while the streams of smoke are boldly patterned.  The smoke and sky are especially interesting because the patterns don’t always follow the contours of the smoke puffs.  Altogether I find it very striking with lots of wonderful stylistic elements.
        If you’re local, be sure to come to Roslindale Open Studios this weekend.  (I'll be at Roslindale House.)  It’s always a beautiful show with lots of great buzz, the weather should be unseasonably gorgeous, and I have two new designs to carve that I’m really excited about.

[Picture: Shift Change, woodcut by Mike Goscinsky (Image from his Etsy shop MikesOriginalPrints).]

October 17, 2017

Mackie's Birds

        D. Helen Mackie (Canada, b. 1926) was a scientist before she became an artist, and her interest in nature is evident in all her work.  Birds are especially prevalent in her art, and all the pieces I have for you today include birds.  In this first piece the chickadees are the close focus, and I like their energy.  The background also appeals to me with its semi-abstract patterns evoking forest.  I think the stars in the upper left must be autumn leaves; our leaves are changing here now, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a great year for color for us.

        In the second piece the birds are just part of the landscape, and indeed almost camouflaged against the sweep of the sky.  How many birds are there in this piece?  Just the two large ones, or are some of the more abstract Vs birds, as well?  The flowers in the foreground are quite detailed, but the rest of the elements are simplified.  I admire the efficiency of line and pattern depicting trees and mountains.
        And finally an entire population of birds.  These birds are rough enough that I’m not sure how many different species are represented.  We’ve got a wonderful owl, and a few smaller birds, but the rest may all be crows.  (For that matter, perhaps the smaller birds are just farther in the distance?  But don’t forget the rabbit!)  This piece doesn’t have a focal point, which I think is hard to pull off, but it’s nevertheless a pleasing tapestry of branches and birds.

[Pictures: Chickadees, two-colour linocut by D. Helen Mackie, 1988 (Image from galleries west);
At Leighton Centre, block print by Mackie (Image from shepaintsred);
In Aspen Woods, woodblock print by Mackie, 2001 (Image from willock & sax gallery).]

October 13, 2017

Of Mountains and Monsters

        The true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract dragons.

        This line appears in Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (2013) as a quotation “from a Chinese poem.”  As no other citation for it appears, I have to wonder whether Henderson didn’t make it up himself.  No matter - whether the words of Henderson or some anonymous Chinese poet, I love the sentiment.  After all, it’s true of so many things in this world that we tend to value them as they can be measured and given numerical status when we should be valuing them for their beauty, or their spiritual significance, or other intangible, unquantifiable attributes.
        This wood block print of a dragon that has found its home is rather charming in itself.  The dragon looks more sly and roguish than downright fierce, and the sheep seem fairly unconcerned, although the poor shepherd boy is certainly terrified.  Not everyone is in agreement as to whether the presence of a dragon improves a mountain or not.  The print is the dragon of Wawel Castle from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis and I think the artist must have had a little fun with this dragon.

[Picture: The dragon of Kraków, wood block print from Cosmographia Universalis by Sebastian Münster, 1544 (Image from Arte Lisa).]

October 10, 2017


        Jack and The Beanstalk is one of those “problematic” tales, in which the hero is far from admirable and his quest is nothing nobler than greed.  Jack’s a quick thinker, but no one who knows him wants to hire him, which is understandable given his light fingers and general dishonesty.  The ogre’s wife is probably the nicest character, and she just gets taken advantage of.  (You can refresh your memory of the story by reading it here.)  So what is there to like about this story?  The beanstalk, of course!  What a wonderful image it gives us, starting with magic beans, representing infinite magical possibilities.  Then there’s the beanstalk itself, growing overnight until it reaches the sky.  It’s especially pleasing that it grows right up past Jack’s bedroom window so that he can climb straight out of his bedroom and up to the sky.
        And then there’s the sky at the top of the beanstalk: a solid sky country.  This is no cloudy, heavenly realm of air and wind.  It’s got a broad road and a great, tall house.  It’s also got magical things in it: magical hen, magical harp, ogre...  I presume it’s got all manner of other magical things in it, too, which we might have heard about if Jack had been more inclined to gathering knowledge rather than gold.
        Here are a few fun depictions of that wonderful beanstalk.  In the first one, the oldest, it looks as if Jack’s climbing the vine to escape his mother’s wrath.  In any case, the perspective is charmingly topsy-turvey so that Jack’s cottage looks huge and the ogre’s castle looks tiny, and Jack himself looks quite shrunk, too.  It also makes it look as though the ogre’s house is the flower blooming at the top of the vine, rather than being built in the sky on its own, with the vine simply reaching up toward it.  This wood block print has some really nice textures, especially the thatch and the tree in the background.  A very different version of the sky is imagined by George Cruikshank.  Although his vine looks much taller - even reaching above the clouds - his rocky sky looks as if it’s actually attached to the earth after all.

        Walter Crane shows us the lower portions of the beanstalk, with Jack’s cottage and angry mother in the background again, but no view of skyland or ogre’s castle at all.  And finally, a modern imagining in scratchboard.  This also gives us no view of what the skyland might look like, but does give us the dizzying perspective of a beanstalk that really has reached as high as the sky.  The town way down there on earth has telephone poles, but no sign of cars or other people about.  As for this climber, I’m holding out hope that, unlike Jack, he’s actually interested in exploring and mapping the world he finds. After all, it must be an amazing place!

[Pictures: Jack and the Beanstalk, woodcut from Round about our Coal-Fire, 1734 (Image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie);
Jack Climbing the Bean Stalk, illustration by George Cruikshank from The History of Jack & the Bean-Stalk, 1854;
Jack climbing, color wood block print by Walter Crane from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1875 (Images from SurLaLune);
Beanstalk, scratchboard by Doug Smith (Image from RonSusser.com).]

October 6, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Mystery Manuscript

        I love a good historical and linguistic mystery and this is one of the best.  The Voynich Manuscript is a 15th century codex handwritten in an undeciphered writing system and illustrated with unidentified figures.  Its 240 or so pages are divided into six sections based on the illustrations and format, and these include unidentified plants, astrology, rather symbolic biological images, “circular diagrams of an obscure nature,” and vaguely apothecary-ish themes.  The pictures are fairly crude, but the alphabet is really quite beautiful.  It seems as if it might have something to do with herbology, women’s medicine, and astrology, but of course nobody knows, what with it being undeciphered and all.
        Wilfrid Voynich was the book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912, but it has quite a long and fascinating provenance.  In 1637 Georg Baresch, an alchemist from Prague, sent my man Athanasius Kircher a sample of the text asking for his help deciphering it, since Kircher had claimed to have decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Baresch called the book a Sphynx “taking up space uselessly” in his library, but nevertheless refused to send Kircher the whole thing.  The next owner, however, gave Kircher the book, noting that he had been told it was bought by Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) for 600 gold ducats.  There is some evidence that Rudolph could have bought it from English astrologer John Dee, although this is speculation.  At any rate, we don’t know what Kircher made of the
mysterious language, and the book presumably went with all the rest of his papers into the library of the Collegio Romano, where it lay until 1870.  At that point we catch a glimpse of it being spirited into the personal library of the university’s rector in order to preserve it from confiscation by Victor Immanuel II of Italy when he captured the city, and then returned to the college in a new location.  Forty years later the college sold it to Voynich, and eventually it was given to Yale University by book dealer Hans Kraus in 1969 after he failed to sell it.
        So, what is this mysterious thing and why has no one made any progress decoding its mysterious language?  If indeed it even has any meaning?  Among those who have tried to decipher the manuscript are (possibly) Dee, whose son reported that Dee had owned “a booke… containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon;” and Baresch, who “devoted unflagging toil” to the task; and Kircher, whose thoughts we have no record of.  Moreover, the manuscript was examined and hypothesized over by several distinguished professors in the early 20th century, and by
codebreakers from World War I and World War II.  William Friedman, most  famous for breaking Japan’s PURPLE cipher during World War II, spent much of his free time over four decades trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, before finally admitting defeat.  Recent computer analyses suggest that the language is not entirely consistent with natural languages (as opposed to artificial language), and that its writing flows more smoothly than is consistent with encryption.
        What do we know?  Its origin is most likely Central Europe.  Analysis of the vellum tells us not only the date (1404-1438) but also that the vellum was not previously used and that it all comes from a single area.  This rules out all possibility of modern forgery as it would be impossible to collect that much unused ancient vellum from a single source.  All the inks and paints are also consistent with the same date.  This date of origin contradicts the early and popular claims of authorship by English polymath and possibly wizard Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who would be much too early.  It also casts some doubt on claims that the manuscript was made in the seventeenth century as a hoax intended to fool Baresch and/or Kirscher.
        So we don’t know much, but what have we speculated?  Almost everything.  Some of the more intriguing possibilities include glossolalia or similarities to Asian languages.  Some of the less possible possibilities include an author from ancient Egypt or outer space.  At any rate, I think it’s something cool!  As the author of the letter to Kircher wrote in 1665/6, “such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master.”
        You can see the whole weird thing here, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Library.

[Pictures: pages from the Voynich Manuscript, early 15th century (Images from Yale University).]

October 3, 2017

Tsoka's Happenings

        Here’s a cool linoleum block print I saw at the Davis Museum (Wellesley College) last week as part of a small exhibit on recent South African printmaking.  David Tsoka (South Africa, b. 1992) is a member of Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg and this piece, unlike the others in the exhibition, echoes and carries on the long tradition of South African linocuts.  However, Tsoka definitely brings his own, modern vibe to it.  For one thing, this piece is quite large, about 3x2 feet.  But even more so, its imagery borrows not so much from a consciously African aesthetic, as many of the South African block printmakers did in the mid twentieth century, but from large-scale sculpture, comic book illustrations, sci fi movies, and even Transformers.  Also, while the title All Things Began to Happen seems from the explosion of imagery in the piece like it might be a reference to the Big Bang, in fact Tsoka says it also refers to his own birth, and the beginning of his own life.  The piece is, in fact, about “the journey of life.”  Tsoka says that the gear-like shapes evoke the idea of the passage of time because the rusting of metal shows time.  I would think that gears also evoke time because of their reference to clockwork.
        I certainly don’t know what all the little scenes and elements of the piece refer to, but I really like the texture and vibrancy of it.  The wide variety of blade marks create a pleasing balance of shades, and the mostly abstract shapes evoke a variety of possible images.  It seems as if it’s about to resolve itself into recognizable scenes, but it never quite does.  Does it depict chaos in an orderly way, or order in a chaotic way?  And maybe that’s about right for life: all those little random moments simultaneously scattered and connected, coming together into a cohesive big picture despite there being no single obvious path or focal point.

[Picture: All Things Began to Happen, linocut by David Tsoka, 2013 (Photo by AEGN, Davis Museum).]