December 8, 2017

Don Quixote

        I’m going to see a performance of “Man of La Mancha” this weekend, so here are a collection of wood block prints illustrating the supremely famous Don Quixote.  “Man of La Mancha” is not just any old adventure; it’s about seeing the world not as it is, but as it ought to be.  Admittedly, Don Quixote is nuts, and his illusions about the world are certainly not always helpful or even inspiring.  Nevertheless, in the musical adaptation Don Quixote’s fantasies (with the sense of delusions) definitely have a lot in common with my sort of fantasy (with the sense of speculative fiction).  That is, by inviting people to think in new, unconventional ways, both fantasies provide hope, creativity, and the possibility of making the world a better place.
        Don Quixote has been an incredibly popular subject for artists, which is hardly surprising, given his status as a symbol of people who live in their
imaginations.  I’ve had a tough time winnowing down the possibilities to a manageable number, but here are some of my relief print favorites.  We begin with one especially suited to “Man of La Mancha,” with its story-within-a-story about Cervantes imagining his characters.  We follow up the image of the fictional characters in Cervantes’s imagination with an image of the fictional characters in Don Quixote’s imagination.  I love the dreamy look in his eyes and the way it’s the pages of the open book that illuminate the world.  Note, too, how Don Quixote holds the pages of the book with separate fingers, marking favorite passages to refer back to.  It’s a nice detail.
        And so Don Quixote sallies forth in two very different styles of wood block print.  The first, a very traditional wood block reproduction of a drawing, shows Quixote looking quite overwhelmed by the world, while the horse Rocinante just looks resigned.  It’s a fun, whimsical depiction, with lots of personality.  The second is too rough, and the figures too distant to have any facial expressions, but the carving itself is very expressive.  It looks like a hot, dry, rough land indeed, and you can sympathize with Sancho’s - and the horse’s - resignation about their master’s whims.
        I certainly couldn’t fail to include a couple of illustrations of the most famous episode of all: tilting at windmills.  This is one of the most popular scenes for artists to depict, and it’s obvious why it would be more interesting to
compose than a picture of a bloke just sitting on a horse.  The illustration by George Cruikshank has his characteristic humor, with Quixote and horse lifted right up in the air, while Sancho and the other bystanders watch in horrified amazement.    The next illustrations show the aftermath, Gustav Doré’s famous version continuing the comedy with all six victims’ legs ridiculously up in the air.  The other takes a more sober approach, in which knight and charger will soon be able to drag themselves to their feet and set off once more.
        Finally, I include a couple of bookplates featuring Don Quixote.  It turns out that Don Quixote was an incredibly popular theme for bookplates during the golden age of hand-carved exlibris, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  Again, what better symbol for book lovers than the man whose favorite books consumed his entire brain?  The first is a charming image of Don Quixote reading while driving, with some nice little touches, such as the flowers on his lance.  The second is an interesting modernist take in which the famous windmill looks more like a huge machine turbine and Don Quixote really looks quite strong and competent like one of Ferdinand Leger’s workers.
        There were plenty of pictures I had to leave out in order to keep this post to a manageable length, and while most were very traditional, a few took the imagery in some interesting - or strange - directions.  But however you picture Don Quixote, it’s worth considering: what is that balance between seeing the world as it is, and imagining it as it could be?  Between practicality and dreaming the impossible dream?

[Pictures: Cervantes imagining his characters, wood block print by Enric Cristófol Ricart, 1933 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote reading a romance, wood block print by Pavel Šimon, first half of 20th century (Image from TFSimon);
Quelle joie, illustration by Jean-Ignace-Isodore Gérard Grandville reproduced as wood engraving by Barbant, 1848 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote’s second sally, wood block print by Hans Alexander Mueller, 1923 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote and the windmill, illustration by George Cruikshank reproduced as wood engraving by Sears and William Hughes, 1824 (Image from Texas A&M);
Adventure of the windmills, illustration by Vicente Urrabieta Ortiz reproduced as wood engraving by Sierra, 1873 (Image from Texas A&M)
Miséricorde! illustration by Gustave Doré reproduced as wood engraving by Héliodore Joseph Pisan, 1863 (Image from Texas A&M);
Bookplate with Don Quixote reading, wood block print by Herbert S. Ott (Image from Art-Exlibris);
Bookplate with Don Quixote attacking a windmill, wood block print by Anatolij Kalaschnikow, 1967 (Image from Art-Exlibris).]

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