January 31, 2020

Words of the Month - Great Gams

     To refer to legs as gams has always been slang, and is now distinctly dated slang at that.  But as usual, there’s more going on with the word than you might have realized.  The Late Latin gamba meaning “leg of an animal” is responsible for a whole host of English words.

gams - not technically a plurale tantum, the word is nevertheless almost always heard in the plural.  It dates from about 1780 and may derive from the heraldry term gamb, for the leg of an animal used as a charge on a coat of arms.  On the other hand, it may instead derive from underworld argot, from Italian.  Either way, it comes ultimately from the Latin.  I’m not sure when it shifted to its modern (relatively speaking!) American usage of applying specifically to “the shapely legs of a pretty woman.”

gammon - ham or haunch of pork, this one is quite obviously and directly derived from Latin gamba, by way of Old French.  (Compare, too, French jambon and Spanish jamon.)

gambol - (1580s) to skip about merrily.  This comes by way of French for “the leap of a horse,” and obviously involves kicking and prancing with the legs.

gambit - originally a specific opening in chess, it came in the 1650s (by way of Spanish and then French) from Italian meaning “tripping up.”  By the 1850s it had broadened its meaning to any “opening move meant to gain advantage.”

jamb - (early 14th c) the side-piece of the frame of a door or window.  Think of the door jambs as being the legs on which the lintel stands.

gambrel roof - (1760s) aka hipped roof, from the idea that its angle is shaped like a horse’s hock.

viola da gamba - (1724 from Italian), literally “viol for the leg,” since it’s held between the legs like a cello.

game - (1780s, originally north Midlands dialect) lame.  The etymology of this one is not certain, but one possibility is that it derives from the same gamba root, in which case that game leg seems quite redundant!

        So now you know, and can appreciate the great gams that show up all around you… but you should probably refrain from catcalling them, whether they’re on your breakfast plate, framing your door, or under a woman’s skirt.  No need to be disrespectful, despite your enthusiasm.

[Pictures: Beauty Parade, cover painting by Billy DeVorss, March 1944 (Image from DTA Collectibles); 
Gamboling Lambs, woodblock print by Matt Underwood (Image from his Etsy shop mattunderwood).]

January 28, 2020

Year of the Mouse

        The rat has a bad reputation, understandably enough, and it seems that no one makes block prints celebrating rats, except those who embrace the macabre.  Yet here we are in the new Year of the Rat, and it’s time to celebrate.  If it makes it any easier, in English we always call the Chinese zodiac symbol a rat, but in Chinese the same word refers to both rat and mouse, so we could just as easily call this the Year of the Mouse, and feel better about it.  So here’s a collection of block printed mice (and one rat).  The
first is mine.  Nothing especially interesting about it, although I confess I’m rather fond of it.
        The interesting thing about the second is, of course, its composition, with the mouse all alone in the corner, in the dark.  It’s very dramatic… and I am jealous of that incredible black.  A black that pure and even is possible only with oil-based ink and a press, so I never achieve it in my prints.
        This tiny mouse is from a primer from about 1776, and it is about as high-quality as most primers
throughout the history of children’s education: not exactly the highest level of artistry.  It is a serviceable little moufe, though!
        This rat appears to have a scholarly bent, and perhaps even a predilection for the arcane.  Those born in a rat year are supposed to be clever and have great ideas, but not always great communication skills, so it looks like this rat is working on that.  Also, rats are supposed to be liked by everyone, so reconsider those rat prejudices!
        And our final mouse, by C.B. Falls, is clearly a harvest mouse, so it can send us back to the previous post featuring lots more block prints of harvest mice.  You can also see a fun giant rat here!
        Happy Lunar New Year!

[Pictures: Mouse, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011 (sold out);
Mouse, linoleum block print by Belle Baranceanu, c 1937 (Image from Asheville Art Museum);
m Mouse, wood block print from The Royal Primer, c 1776 (Image from University of California);
Rat, woodcut by Liv Rainey-Smith, 2013 (Image from her Etsy shop Xylographilia);
M is for Mouse, wood block print from ABC Book by C.B. Falls, 1923.]

January 25, 2020

Very Strange Creatures Indeed

        Here is another poem (from 1929) by Robert Graves.  This has no rhyme or rhythm, being written purely in the form of a conversation, and it belongs to a more humorous, colloquial school.  It is entitled Welsh Incident, and that’s exactly what it describes: an incident.  There seems to be no greater point or moral than just the fun of it.

“But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.”
“What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?”
“Nothing at all of any things like that.”
“What were they, then?”
“All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.”
“Describe just one of them.”
“I am unable.”
“What were their colours?”
“Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you’d like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.”
“Tell me, had they legs?”
“Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.”
“But did these things come out in any order?
What o’clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? What was the weather?”
“I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments,
Collecting for Carnarvon’s (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwlheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth’s mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail’s pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognizably a something.”
“Well, what?”
“It made a noise.”
“A frightening noise?”
“No, no.”
“A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?”
“No, but a very loud, respectable noise –
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.”
“What did the mayor do?”
“I was coming to that.”

        Some of the descriptions of “no sizes” and “no colour” remind me of something from Douglas Adams.  At any rate, it wouldn’t be possible to provide you with an illustration of this scene, indescribable as it is, so I have contented myself with including a single one-eyed two-legged sea dragon from Ulisse Aldrovandi, which seems to capture at least something of the spirit (even if it does have legs).

[Picture: Draco marinus monophtalmos bipes, wood block print from Monstrorum historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1642 (Image from University of Oklahoma).]

January 22, 2020

Keep Dreaming

        The work of Paul Peter Piech seems appropriate as a follow-up to Martin Luther King Jr Day.  Piech (USA/Wales, 1920 - 1996) was a graphic artist who worked in advertising until the late 1960s, after which he produced hundreds of lino and wood block printed posters that combined images with lettering to make social and political statements.  Many of these were in the form of quotations, and Piech made a number of posters featuring words of MLK Jr.  I don’t know how many altogether, but from 1977 through 1979 he made a series of 100 posters commemorating King’s assassination.  From the most famous words of all, “I have a dream,” to longer, less well-known passages, Piech celebrates King’s message.
        Perhaps not surprisingly, Piech’s imagery is dominated by faces and hands.  These are the most emotionally expressive parts of humans, so they’re bound to be a powerful part of any images designed to elicit an emotional response.  Even so, though, Piech concentrates on them even more than the Mexican political printmakers, for example.  He also combines faces and hands in unusual ways, such as placing faces on the palms of hands.  Perhaps the faces represent people and the hands represent actions.

        The text is the other characteristic element of Piech’s work.  I have to confess that I don’t like the large paragraphs of text so much.  Piech’s lettering is difficult to read, and the solid blocks of words are not as graphically powerful as the images.  I do like it when the words and images are more integrated, as in the third piece shown here.  Piech does create an interesting style, though, and it gives his work a distinctive look.  It also makes the message more explicit than images alone can ever communicate.
        Each year we try to remember Martin Luther King Jr’s message and what he stood for, and to recommit ourselves to moving toward justice.  Perhaps the most important piece of all is to hold onto the dream and never allow ourselves to be lulled into the belief that we’ve come as far as we can.  Piech took seriously the artist’s role in helping us to remember to keep working and keep dreaming.

[Pictures: I Have a Dream, relief block print by Paul Peter Piech, 1995 (Image from National Poetry Library);
Love, relief block print by Piech, second half of 20th century (Image from Regional Print Centre);
Economic Injustice, linocut by Piech, 1977 (Image from WorthPoint);
The Softminded Man, linocut by Piech, 1977 (Image from WorthPoint);
Retaliation, linocut by Piech, 1977 (Image from WorthPoint).]

January 20, 2020

Poe, Eichenberg, and Arisia

        Here is a magnificent wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg, illustrating assorted tales of Edgar Allan Poe.  It looks like this is mostly inspired by “Ms. Found in a Bottle”, “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, and “Mellonta Tauta”, and you can see in it just a fraction of the amazing range of speculative themes that Poe explored.  Setting aside Poe’s work, however, the illustration is a wonderful blend of fantasy and sci-fi favorites, from the monster to the airship.  I especially love the sea serpent’s plethora of eyes, which elevate it from your everyday run-of-the-mill sea monster.
        You don’t get anything of more depth and insight today, because I’m off to the sci-fi/fantasy/fandom convention Arisia, where, as usual, I’ll have a big display in the art show, I’ll be offering mini print-making workshops, I’ll be part of an author reading (with the theme of fantasy with a historical bent), and I’ll be on a few panels.  The panels are the other point of this post (beside sharing Eichenberg’s awesome wood engraving).  If you are here from Arisia, I would like to direct your attention to the Labels in the sidebar.  There you will note a few of my panels as topics: Designing the Impossible, Shakespeare and Fantasy, and So You Want to Show Your Art.  Click on any of them to see various past posts that give more information and further thoughts relevant to the panel.  (I’ve also left up a few of the labels from last year’s panels that I think may still be of interest.)

[Picture: Part II section heading, wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg from Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, 1944 edition (Image from Full Table).]

January 14, 2020

10 Dragons, 1000 Posts

        This is my 1000th blog post.  (Do posts work like paper cranes, granting me a wish for peace now that I’ve reached 1000?  Well, I can always wish.)  To celebrate the blog I am sharing a selection of some of my favorite dragons that I’ve discovered in my research into bestiaries.  How about 10 dragons, celebrating 100 posts each?
        These images range from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and the first dragon, with its delightfully bird-like build and leafy tail, is the earliest of this bunch.  The second dragon has remarkably beautiful wings, and it should be noted that more than half of these dragons have feathered wings, rather than the leathery bat-like wings considered standard today.  It also has a remarkably beautiful background and borders.  (Remember that you can click on the pictures to see them bigger.)
        The next looks like it would be right at home in the 1930s instead of the 1330s, and the one beside it is actually just a marginal decoration rather than an illustration of any creature in particular.  I love that it’s breathing foliage instead of fire.  The fifth is a scitalis, which is a kind of serpent notable for its wondrous markings.  Presumably it should have been portrayed as a snake, sans legs or wings, but medieval bestiaries have a tendency to turn all sorts of serpents into dragons, and I’m not complaining.
        The yellow and orange dragon with the head like a puppy dog is part of the illustration of the peridexion tree of India.  This tree repels dragons, so that any doves that stay within its branches are safe from the predations of dragons.  It also sits upon a lovely background design.
        The next dragon, with proper batwings and interestingly webbed feet, is another marginal decoration, and the multicolored beast on gold is another scitalis.  I included the brown dragon below for its goofy grimace.  You can see at once that it was painted by the same artist who made the goofily grimacing malacomorph I featured four years ago.  In fact, if you search the manuscript (link in the credits) you will be amazed by how almost every creature on earth can be depicted with a goofy grimace.  Goofy grimaces must be the superpower of that particular fourteenth-century artist.
        And finally, an amphisbaena, a double-headed serpent.  Like the scitalises, this one has sprouted gratuitous legs and wings.  Speaking of legs, however, while the serpents may have more legs than expected, the dragons have fewer.  There are certainly some medieval dragons with four legs, but not all that many, and I haven’t included any in this celebratory collection.  The dragon/wyvern distinction  hadn’t been invented yet.
        Well, I hope you enjoy these dragons, which have certainly delighted me!  And I hope you've enjoyed this blog over the past 1000 posts.

[Pictures: Dragon, illustration from English Bestiary, 4th quarter of the 12th century (Image from the British Library);
Dragon, illumination from Franco-Flemish Bestiary, c 1270 (Image from J. Paul Getty Museum);
Dragon from Bestiarius Philippi Taeoniensis, 14th century (Image from Kongelige Bibliotek);
Marginal decoration from Hebrew Festival prayer book, Italian, 3rd quarter of the 15th century (Image from the British Library);
Scitalis, illumination from English Bestiary, 1226-1250 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);
Dragon and Peridexion Tree, illumination from French Bestiary, 13th century (Image from Bibliotheque Nationale de France);
Bas-de-page illustration of a dragon from the Queen Mary Psalter, 1310-1320 (Image from the British Library);
Scitalis, illumination from the Aberdeen Bestiary, c 1200 (Image from University of Aberdeen);
Dragon, illumination from Der naturen bloeme by van Maerlant, c 1350 (Image from National Library of the Netherlands);
Amphisbaena, illustration from Bestiary, 1236 - c 1250 (Image from the British Library).]

January 10, 2020

Cordel Literature - and Art

        I have just discovered the existence of the Literatura de Cordel, “string literature,” of the northeastern regions of Brazil.  It is a tradition of pamphlets sold by vendors that hang them from lines of string for display (hence the name).  The contents of the pamphlets are poems, usually of folkloric stories of romance, adventure, battles and bandits, and folk tales, but also sometimes about current events.  They are also usually illustrated with a wood block print on the cover.  They come out of the oral tradition and were often read aloud to illiterate audiences, sometimes performed by the authors themselves, who are considered to be in the tradition of troubadours.  The rise of literacy, as well as the internet, has made some shifts to these traditions, but it is still going strong.  When I first heard about this, I was fascinated to discover that there is an active and living version of the
chapbook tradition that was widespread in English-speaking countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but is now extinct there.  But for my interest here today, the important thing is the block prints for the covers.
        You can see that most of these prints, just like those of other chapbook traditions, are pretty crude, both in the carving and in the actual printing.  Most of them don’t have much in the way of perspective or full scenery, focussing on a single image with little or no background.  Many have uneven inking.  On the other hand, the peacock is quite detailed, and the guitarist stands in front of a cityscape with sophisticated angles and shadows.  Even the more simplistic images have their charm, however.  The man picking money from a tree is full of humor, and the goat really pleases
me with its boldness.  As all good covers should do, these tempt me to find out more about the story - although I know no Portuguese, and the internet has not always provided me with plausible translations.  The man in the tree, for example, appears to be dumping something on the jaguar below, but although I can see “adventures,” “ashtray” and “jaguar” in the title, I can’t figure out exactly how they fit together!
        The popularity of the genre is such that some of the artists (many of whom are also authors) can make a living at the craft, and a few have been embraced by Art World dealers and galleries.  I plan to feature some of that work in another post, but today I’ve limited myself to actual cordel literature covers.

[Pictures: cordel pamphlets (Image from Obvious);
A Cabra Misteriosa (The Mysterious Goat), wood block print by José Costa Leite (Image from British Museum);
Pé de Dinheiro do Banorte, wood block print by Jeronimo;
Rodolfo Coehlo Cavalcante, the King of Cordel, wood block print by MFS;
As Aventuras do Amarelo Joao Cinzeiro Papa Onça, wood block print unsigned;
O Romance do Pavao Misterioso (The Romance of the Mysterious Peacock), wood block print by ABA;
Libertaçao dos Reféns Americanos do Cativeiro do Iran (Liberation of the American Hostages from the Captivity of Iran), wood block print by Minelvino Francisco Silva (Images from HERE).]

January 7, 2020

Upcoming Bestiary Talk

        On Thursday I will be giving a presentation on “The Fantastic Bestiary,” which is my not-particularly-subtle pun with two meanings of fantastic: “really great” and “imaginative or fanciful.”  The thing that gets me so excited about medieval bestiaries is not just the wonderful creatures or just the quirky illustrations or just the strange “facts,” but the blending of so many different fascinating facets: art, science, mythology, morality, history, literature…  It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Interesting Things.  The title slide of my talk gives a sort of table of contents, and you can see that I’ll be trying to cover a range of all the good stuff that goes into medieval bestiaries, and then, of course, how I tried to take all that good stuff and adapt it into my own bestiary.
        In putting together the talk and slides I’ve really been going a little crazy, spending weeks scouring through about 80 on-line digitized manuscripts and incunabula, comparing creatures and contents, and selecting my favorite illustrative examples.  Obviously it’s been a labor of love, since otherwise it couldn’t possibly be worth the amount of time I’ve spent, and I’ve indulged many a fascinating tangent along the way.  I’m just astonished and grateful that there are so many digitized works available to me - 20 years ago this sort of research, encompassing rare works from about two dozen different libraries and museums, would have been extremely difficult and expensive for a scholar, and utterly unthinkable for an amateur like me.
        If you do happen to be local to the greater Boston area, and available during the day, the presentation will be at North Hill in Needham, Thursday, January 9, at 2:00pm.  If not, I do hope to be sharing at least a few highlights in coming blog posts.

[Pictures: Title Slide with three dragons;
A collection of griffins from 13 bestiaries, demonstrating a wide range of artistic talent (or lack thereof).]

January 3, 2020

Happy New Year!

        As we enter a new year and a new decade, gates and doorways seem like an appropriate metaphor, so I have three block prints of portals for you today.  Two are by artists I’ve featured before, and the third is new to me.  So, we start with this wood block print by Bruno da Osimo, showing one of the ancient gates through the Roman wall of the town of Osimo.  No, it’s not a coincidence that the artist and the town have the same name.  Bruno chose to call himself after his hometown, and recorded many images of his local landscapes, as well.  I love the variety of textures in this piece, and the way the path curves as it enters so that we get only a glimpse of further buildings beyond.  That's certainly how I feel entering a new year!

        This huge fancy doorway by Herbert Pullinger is an interesting blend of detailed areas and rough areas.  The ornate wrought iron filigree is incredibly detailed, but most of the people are mere silhouettes.  The words above the door are carefully rendered in both black and white according to the fall of light, but are completely blanked out in large areas.  Pullinger is capturing lighting so strong and harsh that shadows black out all detail and sunlight bleaches out all detail to white.
        Finally, a gate by Rebecca Hearle.  This one uses four colors of ink (plus paper), and the contrast here is between the careful details of the gate and the very simple background.  I get the impression that this is a portrait of a real gate somewhere, lovingly recorded.  Like Osimo, Hearle also celebrates scenes of her own home, in her case the Wash and Fens of East Anglia.
        As you step through into this next decade, I wish you joy wherever you can find it, strength whenever you need it, and hope to guide the way.

[Pictures: Porta Musone, wood block print by Bruno da Osima, 1940s;
The Iron Gates, wood engraving by Herbert Pullinger, 1957 (Image from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts);
Fenland Gate, lino block print by Rebecca Hearle (Image from her web site).]