June 28, 2019

Words of the Month - Pluralia Tantum

        A plurale tantum is a word that, grammatically, appears only in the plural form and never (or, if you’re being less precise in the definition, very seldom) in the singular.  (Plurale tantum is Latin for “plural only” and its plural is pluralia tantum.)  In English, pluralia tantum are often things that occur only in sets, such as eyeglasses, or things that are always a collective, such as suds.  Still, there really isn’t any logical reason why the grammar should have to work this way.  For example, you could certainly say to the person washing dishes, “Oh, you got a sud on your nose!”  Logically this makes perfect sense, but in English it is perceived as being a humorous “error” for effect.  (See a previous post on similar linguistic humor a lá P.G. Wodehouse.)
        You can give thanks, or say “You have my thanks,” but you cannot give a single thank, even though clearly it is possible to thank someone a single time.  Or take riches.  You cannot have a single rich.  On the other hand, you can have wealth in singular only, and not many wealths.  (A word that can be grammatically single only, usually a mass noun, is a singulare tantum.)  There’s clearly no logic there.  Besides, different languages choose different words to treat this way, proving that there’s nothing intrinsic or inevitable about English’s selection.
        Other examples of pluralia tantum include alms, blues, clothes, electronics, fecesgraffiti, heebie-jeebies, heroics, hysterics, knickers, kudos, news, odds, outskirts, remains, spaghettisurroundings, and tenterhooks.  To test them out, try “Mary has lots of electronics, but Joe has only one electronic,” or “Can you believe he came to the door wearing only a clothe?” or “They lived on the northern outskirt of town,” or “Billie sang the blues, but Ethel sang only a blue or two before she quit.”
        Words that are pluralia tantum in normal conversation but which can have exceptions include trousers, pants, jeans, pajamas, and scissors.  I have seen stores advertising
“The perfect trouser for spring,” which always looks stupid and pretentious to me, but clearly works in the fashion industry.  And I would never refer to a single scissor, but I have seen it done, alas.  Amazon, for example, will sell you an 8-inch Scotch Precision Scissor.
        There are also plenty of words that are pluralia tantum in one definition, but normal in another.  Glasses is a case in point.  You can have one glass, but never for your eyesight.  Likewise, you can witness a single spectacle, but again, never for your eyesight.  You can have brains, but if you have a single brain, well… duh.
        Reggie says, “Igor sure has a lot of brains!”
        “Smart, is he?” asks Gladys.
        “No, I mean in jars.  Shelves and shelves of them.”  And this is why it’s important to know your pluralia tantum.
[Pictures: Rub-a-dub-dub, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002;
Princess Zita, linocut by Julia Forsyth, 2017 (Image from JuliaForsythArt on Flickr).]

June 25, 2019

Sound from the East

        Here’s a wild and amazing wood block print by Dai Zhengsheng (China, b. 1954).  Given its title, A Distant Sound from the East, I feel sure it must have deep significance, or at least a background story for its imagery, but I don’t have any information about what that might be.  Dai says, “When I am creating artwork, the starting point and the goal of expression in my work is to elucidate and clarify traditional Chinese culture and the progression of original creative power in life, by means of using direct, condensed, pure and profound woodcut language.”  Which isn’t really very helpful.  You can see if you peer closely (don’t forget that you can click the image to see it at least a bit bigger) that there are figures in the facets of the various shapes: something like a cat at the lower left, somebody reading a book in the bottom middle, figures with staves on the sides of the large central block…  The whole thing evokes the view from an airplane, and the rays of light from glowing clouds, and some sort of superhuge robot like a prism with arms and legs.  The whole thing is quite large, about three feet square (90cm) and full of densely detailed carving over the entire surface.  It’s technically very impressive, as well as being visually fascinating.  I’d love to get a look at it in person.

[Picture: A Distant Sound from the East, woodcut by Dai Zhengsheng, 1998 (Image from Ashmolean Library).]

June 21, 2019

How to Be an Artist

Gratitude first, then curiosity spurred by wonder,
Gathering beauty until it overflows.
Precision spurs precision,
Detail detail, light light.
Polishing each facet of wonder,
Place the world in a small silver setting
And present it to itself.

Pause often to let the beauty flow clear.
Hush often to hear the silence fill up with silence.
Yet never stop, for the pausing is work,
The hushing is work,
The waiting is work –
As long as it fills and overflows again.

[Picture: Small Glass Bottles, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2017.]
Poem by AEGN, 2017.

June 18, 2019

Baumann's Block Prints

        Gustave Baumann (German-born, USA 1881-1971) is a prolific, famous printmaker with a long and successful career.  He primarily worked in color linoleum and wood block prints with multiple blocks, and I did a previous post here on his process with a six-block six-color piece.  That piece gave us a great tour of his working method, but wasn’t a piece I really loved, so today I’ve got a few of his pieces that I do love.
        First, a wonderfully detailed view of a wonderfully detailed building.  The piece is entitled “Old Munich” and my first thought is that the color palette was chosen under the inspiration of sepia-toned photographs.  However, I’m probably being anachronistic with that, since in 1905 photography and sepia-toning would presumably have seemed fairly new.  At any rate, it’s a beautiful image, with a sort of wistful, autumnal look.
        This next one also captures light wonderfully, with a masterful dappling of shadow and the hot sunlit lawn beyond the cool shade of the tree.  The little birds are not very detailed, but the very imprecision of this scene somehow contributes to that sense of looking into strong sunlight, slightly dazzled.  I can’t even figure out how many different blocks and colors Baumann has used for this piece, because the layering of colors adds so much further subtlety.  (This piece is undated, but it has the same border of little yellow dots as the piece in my previous linked post, and is signed with a similar sort of chop, so I’m guessing this one is also from around 1924.)
        And finally, a piece that at first glance looks closer to my beloved single-color block prints… But when you start to look more closely you realize that it has at least three different colors of brown ink, and possibly four or five, depending on how some of the colors were achieved.  Once again, I love the way Baumann has depicted light and shadow.  Perhaps most notable, I find the cream-colored texture on the main arch to be a delightful surprise, and an interesting contrast from the solid areas and other textures in the piece.  Everything about this is gorgeous!

[Pictures: Old Munich, color linocut by Gustave Baumann, 1905;
Live Oak, Sando Park, color woodcut by Baumann, between 1901-1934, c 1924?;
Interior of a Stable, color linocut by Baumann, 1905 (Images from Art Institute of Chicago).]

June 14, 2019

Creature Collections: Encyclopedias

        My interest in compendia of magical beasts is nothing new, obviously  (click on “Creature Collections” in the sidebar for lots and lots of other books) but for the past year or two I’ve been trying especially hard to get my hands on as many comprehensive creature reference books as possible, in order to research subjects for my block prints and my bestiary.  Here are a few of the works I’ve consulted:

        The Mythical Creatures Bible, by Brenda Rosen, 2009 - Lavishly illustrated, full-color encyclopedia with creatures organized in categories, of which “Sacred Creatures” is a separate category, which I appreciate.  The variety of illustrations includes some from older sources and some apparently made for this book.  It does include some errors (such as “the real-life lizard called a Salamander,” and putting the elves of The Lord of the Rings among the “many famous fairies in literature”) which don’t inspire confidence.  It is, however, an appealing book to browse through.

        Dragons, Unicorns, and Other Magical Beasts, by Robin Palmer, 1966 - A dictionary of only about 66 animals with small illustrations, plus complete stories or poems about 12 of them from a variety of cultures.  Hardly a comprehensive reference work, but it is interesting to read about some of the creatures in their own contexts.

        A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, by Richard Barber and Anne Riches, 1971 - A good small reference with a wide variety of creatures, including lots of local monsters of the British Isles, and some more modern beasts such as the gremlin and shmoo.  I especially appreciate that each entry includes its references in an extensive bibliography.  The bibliography is helpfully organized by time period.

        A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, 2016 - Despite the title this is not a field guide, but it is a nice overview of lots of creatures, relatively heavy on humanoids, and arranged in categories (including “The Sacred & the Divine”).  Each of the entries includes side boxes that mention specific instances in literature from ancient myth to modern movies.  It does a great job of putting recent pop culture instances into context.  The illustrations aren’t particularly inspiring, but do at least have the benefit of including a nice diversity of people, when people are shown.

        Giants, Monsters, and Dragons, by Carol Rose, 2000 - Pretty much the keystone reference work on mythical beasts (it tends not to include the more humanoid creatures), this one has a lot going for it.  It covers a lot of beasts, each one given with its references; it has an excellent bibliography; and it includes a number of useful indexes.  It’s always one of the first places to look.  Because it’s such a popular source, it’s a little hard to cross-check - any errors in this book tend to be repeated by everyone else on the internet and in subsequent works (including, no doubt, my own).  Obviously I’d prefer to be able to trust all its information completely, but I think it’s pretty much impossible to cover this much ground without allowing a few errors to creep in, and I consider this encyclopedia an impressive and extremely useful resource.

        The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John & Caitlín Matthews, 2005 - This dictionary aims to include all sorts of magical beings, including not just what I think of as mythical creatures, but also gods, and famous named individuals of certain species, such as centaurs, for example.  It also has articles on the magical attributes of real animals such as elephants and dogs.  There are inset sections retelling specific stories about many of the creatures, and others discussing certain larger categories, such as “Celestial Creatures” and “Road Predators.”  I would have appreciated if it included references for each entry, as some of the other encyclopedias do.

        As I mentioned, I think it’s pretty hard to achieve simultaneously broad range and perfect accuracy of detail, and I’m sure all these works have at least a few inaccuracies, especially in their accounts of non-European mythologies.  I wish they were perfect, of course, and if there were a perfect source I would certainly wish to own a copy — but I confess that I find myself with a bit of a soft spot for the inaccuracies that result from the Game of Telephone that is mythology.  After all, myths and legends have always morphed and changed over time and place as people hear stories, misunderstand them, “improve” them, and tell them again, on down the line.  Despite our best efforts, why should we be any different?

[Pictures: Kraken by uncredited illustrator (?) from The Mythical Creatures Bible by Rosen, 2009;
Gremlin by Rosalind Dease from The Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts by Barber & Riches, 1971.]

June 11, 2019

Three Ways to Look at Churches of Rome

        Here are a few of the wood block illustrations from Andrea Palladio’s The Antiquities of Rome.  This was one of two volumes of guides that Palladio wrote in the mid-sixteenth century about the churches and other antiquities of Rome, and was part of his efforts to popularize classical architecture - something he did sufficiently well to be hailed as one of the most influential architects in the history of Western culture.  The illustrations are credited to Gieronimo Francino, but it’s not always clear what this means in a Renaissance book.  Does it mean he drew the sketches?  That he carved the wood blocks?  Or that he was the printer/publisher?  (See this post on the Nuremberg Chronicle for an overview of Renaissance wood block printmaking.)
        Looking at these illustrations, the first thing to keep in mind is that they were probably not conceived of as being art in their own right, but rather as being illustrations equivalent to those in a text book or guide book of some sort today.  Whoever carved the blocks was not taking advantage of the unique possibilities of relief printmaking, but was simply attempting to reproduce a line drawing.  That said, I do find them pleasing.  The first image is the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.  (This tower is still standing, but it has a facade new since Palladio's time.  He probably would have liked it.)  This is a workmanlike little print with attractive details of windows and column capitals, and the charm of not-quite-right perspective.
        For the church of San Pietro Montorio, our illustration shows the Tempietto, a small tomb in the courtyard built in the early sixteenth century to enormous acclaim.  I’ve included here the illustration of it from The Antiquities, as well as an illustration of it from Palladio’s earlier more acclaimed and scholarly work of architecture.  A comparison of the two indicates how much rougher and less detailed is the one from the guide.  Clearly Palladio had spared no expense in the four books of architecture that were to secure his reputation, while his guide to the antiquities of Rome was his downmarket work for, comparatively speaking, the masses.  Personally, I tend to prefer the less careful work, because it has a little more hand-made charm, although I admit that it would be less useful for architectural analysis.
        For a final style comparison, we’ll look at the church of Santa Maria Rotunda, better known as the Pantheon.  The Pantheon is a remarkable building, completed around 126 CE, one of the best-preserved of all ancient Roman buildings, with the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and converted into a Christian church in 609 CE.  In this case, I find Gieronimo Francino’s illustration of the Pantheon to be a pleasing enough little block print, until you recall that, while a reasonably accurate depiction of the exterior, it portrays absolutely nothing of what
makes the Pantheon special.  This illustration gives no hint about the incredible interior space, or the light that has been considered divine for nearly two thousand years.  So I give here also my own block print depicting the Pantheon, to illustrate some of the differences in how artists have come to think about relief printmaking since Palladio and Francino’s time.  First of all, mine is attempting to be aesthetic rather than didactic.  Then, where Francino’s Pantheon is placed neatly in the middle of a frame, mine is cropped into a mere slice of a view (roughly the view from the doorway), and is asymmetrical.  Finally, Francino uses only black lines on white background, just like the drawing which he was reproducing, while I use some black on white, but other areas with white on black, and still other areas where the black and white are more equal.  Francino is trying to show walls and stones, while I am trying to show light.

[Pictures: La Chiesa de Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, wood block print by Gieronimo Francino from L’Antichita Di Roma by Andrea Paladio, 1588;
The Tempietto of La Chiesa di San Pietro Montorio, wood block print by Francino, 1588;
Tempietto, wood block print from Quattro Libri dell’Architettura by Palladio, 1570;
Pantheon, Tempio di Santa Maria Rotunda, wood block print by Francino, 1588 (Images from Yale Beinecke Library);
Pantheon, Rome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017 (sold out).]

June 7, 2019


        The Land of Cockaigne is a mythical place in European legend.  It is a land of plenty where everyone lives in luxury and ease, but it’s not quite accurate to call it a utopia.  The thing that makes Cockaigne different compared with, say, Shangri-La or other pure paradises, is that Cockaigne is satirical, topsy-turvy, excessive, usually humorous, and always irreverent.  Its plenty is gluttony and its ease is sloth.  According to one 13th century French poem, “the houses were made of barley sugar and cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and the shops supplied goods for nothing.”  In another 13th century song the rules of Cockaigne's priesthood include sleeping in and playing dice, and in Pieter Bruegel’s 1567 painting, a knight waits for a roasted pigeon to fly straight into his mouth.  In the story collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, “I saw a plough ploughing without horse or cow… sweet honey flowed like water… I saw two mice consecrating a bishop… Then a snail came running up and killed two furious lions.”
        Descriptions of Cockaigne appeared on the scene in monastic writings of the middle ages - after all, monasteries are where pretty much all writing was taking place.  In the 12th and 13th centuries a group of mostly young, university-educated clerics called Goliards were particularly known for their satirical poetry, criticizing many elements of church rule, as well as fantasizing about unlimited food, drink, and sex.  In a world that could be unrelentingly harsh for the poor in Europe, it’s not surprising that their fantasies should feature not only exaggerated luxury for humorous effect, but also criticism of the rich and powerful people who weren’t giving them much cause for affection.  However, it’s hard to know whether tales of Cockaigne were prevalent among peasants, because the only records we have are those of the literate minorities who could actually make records.
        In any case, it’s clear that Cockaigne was never believed to be a real place or even a mythical place representing philosophical, cultural or religious beliefs.  It is, quite simply, a vehicle for wish-fulfillment, humor, and satire, and I imagine the rebellious young clergy, and perhaps the peasants, too, enjoyed themselves mightily inventing ever more ridiculous flights of fancy that could be seen in Cockaigne.  Over the centuries, however, its vision of self-indulgent sloth, gluttony, and topsy-turvey social behavior morphed from a commentary on the difficulties of life to a commentary on the evils of excess.  Bruegel’s painting, for example, makes Cockaigne look rather ugly and disgusting, and a poem by Hans Sachs in 1530 says “He who’s worthless and has no will to learn, will be a big success in this realm… He who is wasteful, wild and stupid, crude and senseless at every occasion, he will be made into a prince.”  But the pure wish-fulfillment thread remains in popular culture and can be seen echoed in the American folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (recorded in 1928  but written in 1895) where there are cigarette trees, rivers of booze, and bawdy sex.  This song also illustrates a final cultural adaptation of the Land of Cockaigne: its transformation from a very adult satire to an amusement for children.  Many versions of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” have been rewritten to be aimed at children.
        Like so many fantasy locations, the Land of Cockaigne tells us something about our human preoccupations.  We always use fantasy to illustrate our messages.  When life is unending hardship, we imagine a land where pastries grow on trees and we never have to work.  When we’re frustrated with society’s restrictions, we imagine a land where no one can tell us what we can’t do, and where the upper classes are made the butt of all the jokes.  When lives get a little less grueling - or perhaps when the powers that be begin to subvert the original rebellion - we imagine the cautionary tale of a land where no one does their work and everyone eats junk food all day.  And when we see ourselves as being serious, scientific types, we imagine that lands of humorous fantasy are fit only for children.  Being the Good Little Girl that I am, I would not actually enjoy the Land of Cockaigne, and I think it’s worth considering that the more instant gratification we get with our apps and our technology, the more depressed and alienated we seem to become…  But then, I don't need a Cockaigne because my life is pretty darn good right here, and I can certainly sympathize with the fantasies of the creative medieval satirists who invented and explored Cockaigne as a contrast to their own lives.
        (My A-to-Z post on Cockaigne/Luilekkerland, with maps of this fabulous country, here.)

Further reading: Fourteenth-century poem
        Poem by Hans Sachs

[Picture: Das Schlauraffenlandt, wood block print by Erhard Schön for the poem by Hans Sachs, 1530;
Luilekkerland, oil on panel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Land of Cockaigne, woodcut by Nancy Haver (Image from Zea Mays Printmaking).]

June 4, 2019

En Plein Air

        Painting “en plein air” just means painting outdoors, but it’s a fancy art term because it’s French.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, both logistics and tradition required that art be made properly in a studio, but with the invention of pre-made paint in tubes for portability, and the new interest in capturing natural light and various time and weather conditions and optical effects, artists began taking their easels outdoors and working en plein air.  Most of the earlier plein air artists were using oil paints, but nowadays it’s probably even more popular with watercolors.  At any rate, it certainly doesn’t have much to do with block printing!
        Back in April, Needham Open Studios held our annual plein air painting event to help advertise and build excitement for our Open Studios weekend.  We collaborate with a local farm/garden center and usually have artists working in shifts through the day, about three at a time in various areas around Volante Farms.  It’s been an enjoyable event, and I usually take a shift sitting at the information table, since I’m not a painter.  This year, however, a little confusion and miscommunication meant that one of the artists I thought would be painting thought that she would be sitting at the table, so that left me in the role of plein air artist!
        It was not as beautiful a day as we’ve had some years - a little chilly, a little windy, and looking as if it might be inclined to sprinkle - so we all set up in the large greenhouses instead of outdoors.  (I guess that makes it plein-ish air, but it was certainly natural light, at least.)  Anyway, I chose as my subject a handsome pot of mixed succulents, and spent my plein air shift just sketching it.  I had to fall back on stodgy old tradition and return to my studio to transfer the sketch to rubber, carve, and print the block.  So no, it really isn’t a proper plein air piece, but I think it’s about as close as you can get with block printing!

[Picture: AEGN at work, photo by M. Grundy, 2019;
Succulents, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]