November 28, 2017

Words of the Month - The Glamour of Grammar

        For anyone with a taste for linguistics, it’s easy to see that grammar is glamorous, but not everyone may realize that these words are not only connected, but connected in their magical power.  Let’s start with grammar.  From Latin, from Greek, this word originally comes from the word for the art of letters, or writing.  You can see the same root in telegram and hologram, as well as its alternate form in autograph, cryptography, calligraphy, and many more.  In English the word grammar referred only to Latin grammar until the sixteenth century, except that originally it also referred to all sorts of knowledge, especially occult knowledge and magic.  After all, those same Latin scholars often studied the protosciences such as alchemy and astrology.  Even without that, the connection between writing and magic is long and deep.  To those of us who take reading and writing for granted, writing may not seem anything out of the ordinary, but as Svarnil reminds Jiriya in Sleeping Legends Lie, writing is magic to those who cannot do it, and for most of history, that was most people.  Writing, a powerful ability wielded by an elite few, has been considered to be magic in many cultures.
        An early fourteenth century variant of grammar, gramary or gramarye, was revived by Sir Walter Scott in its meaning of “magical arts”, and Scott (1771-1832) is also responsible for the introduction of glamour to mainstream English.  Glamour was a Scottish dialectal word, a variant of the archaic gramary, and it meant “a spell or enchantment, especially an illusion.”  It was most common in the phrase “to cast a glamour.”  The meaning “magical beauty, alluring charm” dates back to 1840.  After all, making something more attractive has to be one of the most popular uses of magic and illusion.
        A grammar can also be the book that lays out the rules of a language, and naturally when grammar could mean “occult knowledge”, seventeenth century French developed the word into grimoire, a textbook of magic or a book of spells.  English borrowed this word in 1849.
        Nowadays you’re unlikely to run into the word grimoire, or the magical meanings of gramarye and glamour, unless you’re reading fantasy.  Nevertheless, it’s always wise to remember that there is a glamour to grammar.  Language does indeed have the power to perform magic: everything from casting illusions both good or evil, to changing the very substance of the world.

[Pictures: wood block print from The Owl’s Almanac by Thomas Middleton, 1618 (Image from Morbid Anatomy);
Pentacles from The Key of Solomon, 1889 edition of a text dating to the Renaissance (Image from Internet Archive).]

November 24, 2017


        Having glorified pie in my last post, today seems a good day to look at how a handful of artists have explored the theme of gluttony in block prints.  Not surprisingly, series of prints depicting the seven deadly sins were more popular five hundred years ago, but nevertheless, there’s an interesting diversity in the way the vice has been personified or represented.
        We begin with a fat belly and a long neck, the latter on the theory that having a long neck would allow you to enjoy your food all the way down, and the former on the theory that you’ve already eaten too much.  The birds are also apparently traditional symbols of gluttony, so clearly in the sixteenth century the phrase “to eat like a bird” would have meant something very different.
        Nowadays the animal that most symbolizes gluttony is the pig, and that was true back in the sixteenth century, too.  This comfortably plump woman is standing beside a pig, and holding a goblet and a pack of cards.  Despite the flames (hellfire?) around her feet, she doesn’t look nearly so badly off compared with today’s gluttons gorging on burgers and booze.  This twenty-first century image by James Todd includes the figure of death.  After all, they are deadly sins, aren’t they?
        Some artists choose to imagine an embodiment of the vice itself, instead of the people who indulge in it, coming up with monsters of gluttony.  Hans Baldung’s monster looks avidly grasping, which seems plausible although it’s a different twist from the big bellies of our previous depictions.  Certainly it looks like something you’d want to stay away from.
        And then there’s this straight up what-the-heck-? scene based on Bruegel’s work.  This piece is dense with allegory, and while the pig, the people guzzling from jugs, and the little man carrying his belly on a wheelbarrow are all perfectly straightforward, who knows what’s up with the windmill in the shape of a man’s head, the bagpipes slung over the tree, or the buildings on fire way in the background.
        Gluttony can literally kill you in the form of addictions to drink or drugs, and all the health problems correlated with obesity, but that’s not why the deadly sins are called deadly.  The idea is that gluttony is deadly to the spirit.  How are we prone to gluttony now?  And do any of these prints still serve to illustrate that spiritual danger in a meaningful way?

[Pictures: Gourmandie (Gluttony), wood block print from Emblemata by Alciatus, 1549 (Image from Sensory Studies);
Fresikeit (Gluttony), wood block print by Hans Burgkmair the Elder, c 1510 (Image from The British Museum);
The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, woodcut by James Todd, 2010 (Image from Matrix Press);
Fressery (Gluttony), detail from wood block print of all seven sins by Hans Baldung Grien, 1511 (Image from Red Baron’s Blog);
Gula (Gluttony), engraving by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558 (Image from The Met).]

November 21, 2017

Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

        Here’s a lavish edition of Lydia Maria Child’s classic 1844 poem about Thanksgiving, illustrated with wood block prints.  Yes, I’m always thankful for block prints!
        I’m one of those who learned the song with “woods” and “Grandmother’s house,” but I’m also one of those who lived in a place where snow at Thanksgiving was not all that unusual.  I only ever really knew the first and third verses, but had I known that in the fifth stanza Grandmother says, “The children are here, bring a pie for everyone” I would have found that quite inspirational!
        As for these wood block prints by Christopher Manson, they have that lovely punch of black  carved wood over painted color.  These illustrations are set in the original era, with period clothing and architecture to go with the old-fashioned references in the lyrics.  I like the texture of the snow and trees, and the border around the picture.  The book also has attractive endpapers with these lovely Thanksgiving baskets, a pleasing little block print, and a nice design detail.

        Then there’s the boy inspecting the pie, and as I alluded to earlier, Thanksgiving is all about the pies.  I can identify with this boy.  Turkey?  Whatever.  Pie is where it’s at.  Manson’s little vignette captures the warmth and glow of a kitchen with hearth and oven for that crucial baking.
        If you’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving this week, may you have much joy in family, friends, and food.  Especially pies.

[Pictures: Illustrations from Over the River and Through the Wood, colored wood block prints by Christopher Manson, 1993.]

November 17, 2017

Zofrea's Harvest

        As we near Thanksgiving, here’s a wood block print of the harvest.  Salvatore Zofrea (Italy/Australia, b. 1946) has a distinctive technique in which his white figures have a black outline and a white outline.  Clearly he first carves an outline of every shape regardless of whether it will eventually be up against a white or a black background.  He then goes on to carve out white areas, carefully leaving their black outlines, thus giving them that double border.  In this harvest piece there is an over-all texture of lines for the long stalks, growing, cut, gathered, fallen… everywhere.  It certainly looks like hard work.
        I’ve included a second piece by Zofrea that I especially like, entitled “My mother’s hands.”  I love how well the sketchy texture of the carving makes accurate details of wrinkles, veins, and skin.  The close focus on the hands laid in the lap is quite lovely.  This comes from a series of pieces illustrating the artist’s life.
        These are actually quite large pieces, for woodcuts.  The harvest scene is 60x90 cm (24x 36 in).  Seeing only small images on-line, it’s hard for me to get a sense of the impact they would have in person, at full size.  Still, better a small view than none at all!

[Pictures: Harvesting, from the series Capricornia, woodcut by Salvatore Zofrea, 1989;
My mother’s hands, from the suite Appassionata, woodcut by Zofrea, 1994-9 (Images from Art Gallery NSW).]

November 14, 2017

Moore's Moyle and More

        It’s time for some more fantasy poetry, and today I’m looking at Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish Romantic poet.  Like many of the Romantics, his work can be appallingly overwrought, as in this verse I discovered when researching my hercinia.  It’s an excerpt from a "Dream of Antiquity” (c. 1804).  You can note the reference to hercinias, if you can get that
far through the densely self-conscious poetickness.

And now the fairy pathway seemed
To lead us through enchanted ground,
Where all that bard has ever dreamed
Of love or luxury bloomed around.
Oh! 'twas a bright, bewildering scene--
Along the alley's deepening green
Soft lamps, that hung like burning flowers,
And scented and illumed the bowers,
Seemed, as to him, who darkling roves,
Amid the lone Hercynian groves,
Appear those countless birds of light,
That sparkle in the leaves at night,
And from their wings diffuse a ray
Along the traveller's weary way.

        Having read this I was wondering why on earth Moore was famous.  Then I saw that he was also the author of many of the classic sentimental Irish songs including “The Minstrel Boy,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” and “Believe Me if All those Endearing Young Charms.”  So that explained his fame, but didn’t qualify him for a blog post about fantasy poetry.  And then I saw that he was also the author of “The Song of Fionnuala,” (c. 1808) and here he is!  For the fantasy background, you need to know that this poem refers to Fionnuala, one of the four Children of Lir, a sea god of Irish mythology.  The mother of Lir’s children was a daughter of the king of the gods, and when she died her father sent Lir another of his daughters as a replacement.  Unfortunately, this second one was jealous of Lir and his children and cursed the four children into swans for 900 years.  For 300 of those years they had to live on the Sea of Moyle.  Here’s the first verse.

Silent, oh Moyle, be the roar of thy water, 
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose! 
While, murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter 
Tells to the night-star her tale of woes. 
When shall the swan, her death-note singing, 
Sleep with wings in darkness furl'd? 
When will heaven, its sweet bells ringing, 
Call my spirit from this stormy world? 

        Okay, you may still be wondering what’s so great about this, but I first encountered it at the impressionable age of 9.  I liked the tragic drama of the fairy tale, but I fell in love with the alliteration.  Read it aloud with a little emotion and see if all that smooth, wonderfully interlocked alliteration doesn’t thrill you!  Of course, Moore also has rhyme to add to the mix, making the words flow together even more voluptuously.  Quite simply, this was the sort of stuff that turned me into a life-long lover of poetry and fantasy both.

[Pictures: Swan Feather, wood engraving by Colin See-Paynton;
Quietude of Swans, wood engraving by See-Paynton (Image from Colin See-Paynton’s web site).]

November 10, 2017

Show Season

        Art Show Season is in full swing, and I want to start getting out the word about a number of upcoming shows in which I’ll be participating.  If you’re in the area, consider visiting one or two (or four) to have fun with your holiday shopping.  These shows are a great opportunity to find unique and special gifts, buy local, and support the arts and artists while getting away from the computer screen without having to face the mall.  And even if you don’t want to buy a thing, local art shows are still a fun place just to see original arts and crafts, talk with the people who make them, and perhaps get inspired for your own projects.  Most artists at shows are delighted to talk shop, and share tips and techniques.
        Next up for me, in one week, is the Village Fair at the Needham Congregational Church on November 18, from 9:30 - 3:00, plus another hour or two after the service on November 19.  This will be the first time I’ve done this show in several years, since they’ve started having more emphasis on artists, so I’m curious to see how it goes.  My daughter loves this event because it offers such a range of things, from hand-made original art including pottery, jewelry, painting, and of course block prints, to food and a bake sale, to a display of quite nice used items at rummage sale prices.  There’s also a special area where very young children can select and wrap gifts for others without breaking very small budgets or ruining the surprise for family members.
        Two weeks after that, on December 2-3, from 11:00 - 5:00, will be Mother Brook Open Studios.  This is the place for the more serious Art, including not just smaller works in a wide variety of media, but large scale oils, sculpture, and more.  This is the show where I’ll have more space to display all my work instead of having to jam-pack as much as possible onto one table.  November “holiday” sales notwithstanding, I just can’t go into Christmas mode until December — but as of Mother Brook Open Studios, it’s time to go wild with your Christmas shopping!  And you will find some really amazing and gorgeous art at this event.
        The following weekend, December 9, from 10:00 - 3:00, I’ll be at the annual Winter Arts Fest in Needham Town Hall, where there will be live music and lovely sunlight streaming into the beautiful hall.  Okay, I can’t really guarantee the sunlight, but I can guarantee a variety of hand-made goods including candles, soaps, origami boxes, and recycled art, in addition to the usual array of jewelry, ceramics, and wall art.
        Meanwhile, for the entire month of December I’ll be exhibiting in the Gallery at Wellesley Free Library.  My show will be “Around the World” and will include about two dozen pieces that depict real places.  I expect that I’ll share more details about the show once I hang it, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it comes together, because I’ve never assembled this particular selection of my work before and it’ll include some of the pieces that I don’t show so often.
        I’ll be busy in the next month, and you should get busy, too, putting these dates on your calendar, and then getting out and enjoying some local art.  I’ll see you there!

[Pictures: Needham Congregational Church, pieced quilt block by AEGN, 2007.
Information about the Village Fair here or here.
Grist Mill, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015.
Information about Mother Brook Open Studios here.
Collage by Mary Hensley.  (Information about Winter Arts Festival here.)]

November 7, 2017

Feathers to Light the Way

        Here is my newest piece, illustrating a hercinia.  The hercinia is a bird with feathers that glow and shine at night like fire, and serves as a guide for travellers in the dark forest.  Isidore of Seville (Spain, c. 560-636 CE) described them, “Their feathers sparkle so much in the shade that, however dark the night is with thick shadows, these feathers, when placed on the ground, give off light that helps to mark the way, and the sign of the glittering feathers makes clear the direction of the path.”  I find this a really lovely idea: the Light guiding us in the darkness, sometimes like a shining beacon, and sometimes just with little clues of Light that mark just one or two steps at a time but keep us safely to the Path…  The bird itself glows brightly, but the feathers don’t lose their light when they’re shed but continue to mark the way, even if we miss the bird itself.  The birds’ name comes from the forest they inhabit, the very forest that gave us all those fairy tales warning us not to stray from the path.  The Hercynian Forest was ancient in antiquity and stretched right across Europe.  Now only pockets of it remain, of which the Black Forest is probably the most famous.
        For my illustration of the hercinia I knew exactly what I wanted: the dark, dense forest with shadowed trees tangling themselves into the distance, and the bright bird like a spirit of Light beckoning the viewer in.  This was more complicated and detailed than most of my pieces, and the layered shadowiness particularly was a little different from what I’ve attempted before.  I used a fine crosshatching to try for a mid-tone between black and white in addition to various areas textured like bark, grass, leaves, moss, etc.  For the most part I’m pretty pleased with it.  I think the cross-hatching worked best where I had vague shapes in it, as just above the hercinia, rather than the areas of more even cross-hatching, which look a little too geometric.  I am pretty disappointed by the feathers along the path, which I think look a bit too much like large, hairy caterpillars.  Not that glowing caterpillars couldn’t be good guides, too, of course, but that was not exactly my intention!  On the other hand I’m very happy with most of the trees, with their variety of bark patterns, and their texture and shadow.  Over all I really stretched my technique with this one and am well satisfied with how it came out.  I’m also having fun thinking about what I might say about the hercinia in the theoretical mythical bestiary I’ve been playing with.

[Picture: Feathers to Light the Way, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017 (sold out).]

November 3, 2017

Lyrical Kandinsky

        Wassily (or Vasily) Kandinsky (Russia/France, 1866-1944) is generally considered the creator of the first purely abstract work in modern art.  Most famous for colorful paintings, Kandinsky also worked a fair bit with wood block prints, in which he explored many of the themes that so interested him, including music, spirituality, and the move to abstraction.  In 1913 he published a book of prose poems and 56 woodcuts he’d been working on for several years.  It was entitled Sounds and he called it a “musical album,” although most of it wasn’t explicitly about sounds or music - at least as far as I can tell; the poems are pretty abstract, too.  It’s sort of funny that Kandinsky and I share so many similar interests - music, poetry, block printing, spirituality - and yet come to such completely different places.
        The piece entitled “Lyrical” uses four blocks for four colors, plus two more shades where the colored blocks overlap.  In it I see a flying horse with red wings, which seems quite lyrical swooping through the air.  Unfortunately I’m wrong, and it actually represents a horse and rider, which was a motif Kandinsky used to symbolize overcoming representation.  (Isn’t that
an irony, to use a representational image to symbolize abstraction?)  It also seems to me less lyrical and more of a headlong gallop when I look at it as a horse and rider.  In any case, it’s interesting to see how this particular piece reproduces a painting from 1911.  Or perhaps the painting reproduces the wood block print.  Given that the wood block prints for the book were made over a period beginning in 1907, I can’t say whether the painting or the woodcut came first.
        And I’ve included a couple of other pieces from the book.  If I try to find images in the abstract piece above, I can imagine a woman in the lower right, and perhaps more horses along the bottom center and left.  But who knows?  If Kandinsky’s thought process for this piece was recorded anywhere, I haven’t seen it.  The last piece here is quite representational, showing Kandinsky’s interest in Russian folk motifs.  I like the pattern on the woman’s dress, and the fairy tale quality of the trees and clouded mountain, and blowing veil.

[Pictures: Vignette next to “Offen (Open)” color woodcut from Klänge (Sounds) by Vasily Kandinsky, 1913;
Lyrisches (Lyrical) woodcut from Klänge by Kandinsky, 1913;
Der Reiter (Lyrisches), oil on canvas by Kandinsky, 1911 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Der Schleier (The Veil) woodcut from Klänge by Kandinsky, 1913 (Images from MoMA).]