March 30, 2020

F is for Fiddlers

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.

        His Majesty was especially fond of square dancing and Vivaldi.
        I take the pipe and bowl to be tobacco and alcohol, neither of which I particularly want to encourage.  I didn’t know what else to do with the pipe in my illustration, though, so I left it.  Later I saw an illustration (I don’t know the artist) which I wish I’d thought of: the pipe was a bubble pipe, and the bowl was soapy water!
        Other than that, most of the variation in illustrations for this nursery rhyme is in the depiction of the fiddlers.  Some artists go for maximum uniformity, but others like to go for variety, often exaggerated for comic effect.  In the second piece, each of the “fiddlers” comes from a different musical era: ancient, classical, and Romantic (which would have been modern at the time.)  Meanwhile, King Cole himself looks renaissance, and the servant floating in the background with the bowl looks like an angel or genie!  The one thing all illustrations have in common (at least the older “classic” illustrations that I’m looking at) is that the fiddlers are always men, and I’m afraid I followed suit on that.
        The last illustration is a color wood block print by F.D. Bedford, and has the fiddlers looking quite young and the serving boys even younger.  There’s a jug of whiskey at Cole’s side, as well as a cask of something else, so there’s no glossing over the alcohol in this illustration!  Note that one of the boys is bringing “Kings Mixture,” which I assume to be the tobacco, but which I prefer to imagine might be mixed nuts.
        As the final post for the month, it’s also time for Words of the Month.  The fiddle was covered in a previous Words of the Month post here, so today let’s look a little more closely at that bowl that was called for.  This is one of our Old English words, and it’s had its current meaning forever.  However, the definition used to be a fair bit broader, encompassing pots and cups as well.  It also used to include in its scope a large drinking cup as used in revelry,
and that’s presumably what Old King Cole was calling for in this rhyme.  But there are other possibilities.  Bowl also encompassed what we now mostly call basins, so perhaps Old King Cole wanted to wash up after his feast.  We still use that meaning in finger-bowl.  Then there’s the meaning “ball,” as in bowling, the lawn sport bowls, or in some dialects billiard balls or marbles can be called bowls.  That definition derives from a related word, but came to English by way of Old French.  Or what about the bowl of the pipe, which he’s already calling for?  That’s a later usage, but still before this nursery rhyme is first attested in 1708.  However, the pipe in question may well not have been a smoking pipe anyway.  Although we don’t know of earlier origins to the rhyme, that first 1708 version doesn’t include the pipe at all, and smoking was not widespread in Europe until the late sixteenth century.  So the pipe could originally have been a musical instrument (I wish I’d thought of that at the time of my illustration, too!) or could simply have been a later addition.
        So, we don’t really know for sure what the bowl is, we don’t really know for sure what the pipe is, and we don’t know at all who Old King Cole himself was!  There are many theories, from Finn mac Cumhaill’s father Cumhall, to legendary Welsh king Coel Hen, to 12th century merchant Thomas Cole-brook, to Richard Cole of Bucks who died in 1614.  None of these theories has the slightest corroborating evidence.  So the question is, why do people want so badly for there to be a real Old King Cole hiding somewhere in history?  Do you think it’s more fun or less if the ditty is merely a silly, made-up story as opposed to a coded relic of history?
        A final note for impressionable children: Just Say No to tobacco, drugs, and alcohol - but by all means enjoy the music.  Old King Cole and I recommend Vivaldi.
[Pictures: Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001 (Image from my book);
Illustration from The Nursery Rhymes of England collected by James Orchard Halliwell, 1844 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Illustration from The Book of Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Fables edited by Lawrence Lovechild, 1847 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Color wood block print by Francis D. Bedford, from A Book of Nursery Rhymes, c 1885-97 (Image from Internet Archive).]

March 27, 2020

E is for Eenie

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Eenie meenie miny moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go.
Eeenie meenie miny moe.

        Kindness to animals is always a virtue, even if the tiger needn’t have hollered quite so loudly over such a very small injury.
        I’d like to talk about how I imagine the story: of catching a tiger - by the toe, no less!, feeling sorry for its distress, and letting it go again.  But unfortunately I think this is the place, instead, to acknowledge the problematic content of some nursery rhymes.
        This was the counting-out rhyme of choice for my fellow children and me when I was growing up.  We used it all the time, occasionally with the addition of My mother says to pick the very best one and you are IT, if we wanted to draw it out.  And yes, it was a tiger, with never the slightest suggestion of anything else, and no racist overtones, undertones, or tones of any sort.  I did not even realize that other versions existed until I was an adult, when I discovered that in fact there are seemingly infinite variations in all the parts: the nonsense words, the thing that’s caught, and the response to it.  So no, there’s really nothing problematic about this precise nursery rhyme, but there is a particular other version that is more than merely problematic.  (To be explicit, for those who do not know, some people know the second line as “Catch a nigger by the toe.”  This is a word I would never want to use, but as a linguist it is important to be honest and accurate about the words people do use, not the words I think they should use.)
        Given the age of variants of the rhyme (one theory is that it originates in Old Saxon divination) and geographical distribution, it seems likely that the racist version is not original, but developed in the US south.  Unfortunately, that racist version was popularized by Rudyard Kipling, among others, so it gained far too much of the market share in the early twentieth century.  That’s left a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and I can absolutely sympathize that those who grew up with the offensive version should get an instant negative gut reaction at hearing the opening words.  However, I don’t believe that the non-racist versions should be condemned because of guilt by association…  Also, if we’re opening the can of worms that is offensive content in nursery rhymes, we should be at least as concerned about sexism; abuse of spouses, children, and animals; and prejudice against various peoples throughout the British Isles and Europe, as well.
        I haven’t included in my A-Z challenge any of the rhymes that I consider dreadful, but of course different people are offended by different things to different degrees.  One could fairly ask why we keep these rhymes at all, if they’re so problematic.  So, what do you think?  Do you see any value in passing on culture from the past, and what do you think should be done with the parts of cultural history we wish we didn’t inherit?  Where do you draw the line, and
how do you think we should handle these problems?  And what’s your favorite counting-out rhyme?
        A final note for impressionable children:  Do your best to be kind to everyone.  Sometimes even a tiny pinch on the toe can be painful.

[Picture: Eenie Meenie Miny Moe, rubber block print by AEGN, 2004 (Image from my book).]

March 25, 2020

D is for Diddle, Dish, and Dog

        (This year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge theme is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  You can find the master list of all participating blogs here.)

Hey, diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle!
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

        The dish and spoon sent a nice postcard from their honeymoon.
        What’s not to like about this tale?  It’s got something for everyone: music, sports, comedy, animals, and romance, all in four short lines.  Although clearly not everyone does approve; the 1760 nursery rhyme book with the morals says, “It must be a little Dog that laugh’d, for a great Dog would be ashamed to laugh at such nonsense.”  Some dogs have absolutely no sense of humor!  As for me, I must be a little dog, because I had a lot of fun with my illustration.  Many illustrations actually dress the
animals in clothes, and stick arms and legs on the place setting, but I didn’t like making everything so anthropomorphic.  I wanted to give the inanimate place setting a little liveliness while keeping the items in their proper forms.  And if an actual cat were to play an actual fiddle, how might it manage it?  
        As one of the most popular nursery rhymes, there were many illustrations to choose from and of course I had to leave out several that I liked a lot.  This second one has a dog that looks more like a pig and honestly, it’s not my favorite, but I’ve included it because it has a couple of unusual touches.  The touches I think are ridiculous are that the spoon and cow are wearing dresses.  The touch I rather like is that the cow is playing leapfrog with the moon.  It’s also worth noting that this illustrates a variant in which “the dish ran after the spoon,” as opposed to having them run away together.  So no romance there.
        W.W. Denslow’s illustration, up next, is probably a lithograph, not a block print, but oh well.  It’s interesting that he’s left out the cat, which C is also for, but I like his cow.
        And we end with an older wood block print, a little rough, but it pleases me.  I can’t complain that this dish and spoon are too anthropomorphic: they’re just lying there!
        This is our first rhyme of the challenge that has much in the way of fantasy, but it has plenty.  Sentient animatronic place settings?  A cow going into orbit?  Possibly it’s actually more sci fi than fantasy.  We’ve heard of dogs and monkeys in space, but apparently a cow was actually the first astronaut.  What do you think prompted this feat of extraterrestrial jumping prowess, and what did she see up there?
        A final note for impressionable children: Do not try this without proper equipment.

[Pictures: Hey, Diddle Diddle!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001 (Image from my book);
Illustration from Mother Goose’s Complete Melodies, published by M.A. Donohue, c 1886 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Illustration by W.W. Denslow from Denslow’s Mother Goose A.B.C. Book, 1904 (Image from University of Florida);
Wood block print from Nursery Rhymes, published by W.S. Johnson, c 1830 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book).]

March 23, 2020

C is for Crooked

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence by a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

        It’s good to have friends who understand you.
        I’ve always found this one especially charming.  As a child I was cheered to see the three of them making their own happy family.  Here’s the first of my own nursery rhyme illustrations for the A-Z challenge, which appears in my book Hey, Diddle Diddle! and Other Rhymes.  I especially enjoyed designing the crooked house, but I tried to make everything crooked, from the fence to the very blades of grass.
        We get the impression in the second illustration that the crooked man really enjoys his walks.  Here he is perhaps on the way home to the crooked house after another crooked mile or two, with the mouse scampering on ahead and the cat, looking quite Halloweeny, hitching a ride.  This is from the era of printing in which wood engravers reproduced illustrations for printing, so although it is technically a block print, it really has the look of a pen drawing.
        This third illustration is the opposite: not technically a block print, but with the spirit of one, with its solid areas of black and white (although really too much white).  This artist shows the crooked man holding his crooked sixpence, which he really shouldn’t still have if he’s already got the cat and the mouse.  Ah-ha, caught you there, illustrator J.F. Goodridge!
        Fun historical note: apparently in the second half of the 17th century there was a fashion for a young man to give his beloved an altered coin as a love token.  The coin might be smoothed and engraved on one side, or pierced to make a pendant, or bent, making it “crooked.”  On the other hand, perhaps a crooked coin is counterfeit.  So what do you think was the story behind our crooked man’s sixpence?  Might it have been a love token?  And if so, was it discarded or lost?  I like the idea that even if it was discarded in rejection of one potential family, it made possible the coming together of another.
        A final note for impressionable children: Families come in many forms.
[Pictures: In a Little Crooked House, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002;
Illustration by W.J. Wiegand (wood engraving by the Brothers Dalziel) from Mother Goose, or National Nursery Rhymes, 1872 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Silhouette illustration by J.F. Goodridge from The Original Mother Goose Melodies with Silhouette Illustrations, 1878 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

March 20, 2020

B is for Baa Baa Black

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Baa baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.
One for my master, and one for my dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

        The Black Sheep was happy to share his wool, but appreciated it when people asked nicely.
        Perhaps the most interesting variation in this nursery rhyme is that there’s another version that gives none for the little boy who lives (or cries) in the lane.  At first I thought perhaps this was one of those rhymes that had been nicened up in recent times, but in fact one of the oldest versions ever printed gives a bag to the boy in question, so it seems that throughout the history of this verse some people have chosen to withhold wool from the poor lad.  I wonder why?  When you do that, the math doesn’t even add up!  (But perhaps the boy in the lane had been known to throw rocks at the sheep?)
        I have three illustrations for you.  The first cracks me up because the boy’s pose makes me sure he must be greeting the sheep with a beer-commercial-style “Whasssaaap!?!”  The block itself is carved quite nicely, with lovely details in the tree, for example.  The second illustration shows the sad contrast between the master and dame and the wool-less little boy in the lane.  The selfish young master and dame certainly look ill-natured enough, and the boy in the lane certainly appears to be an innocent victim.  And finally the black sheep with its three bags full, which seems pretty impressive to me, although my level of expertise about wool production is low.  Well done, Black Sheep!
        One of the earlier books of nursery rhymes, from about 1760, includes morals with some of them, and for this rhyme (it gives the variant with none for the boy), it says helpfully, “Bad Habits are easier to conquer Today than Tomorrow.”  Very true, no doubt, but can anyone see what possible connection this has to the story of the Black Sheep?
        A final note for impressionable children: Bad Habits are easier to conquer Today than Tomorrow… but also, Appreciate those who provide you with the things you need.

[Pictures: Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood engraving from Nursery Rhymes, published by Richardson and Son, c 1840 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book).]

March 18, 2020

A is for A

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Great A, little a, bouncing B,
The cat’s in the cupboard and can’t see me.

        I’m starting off this A-Z series with A.  You can’t get any more on-point than that, now, can you?  I’ve also chosen this rhyme to begin with, because my first illustration of it comes from the earliest known book of nursery rhymes (in English), Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book from around 1744.  It’s a tiny book, made small for children, and printed in both black and red ink (but only one color per page.)  Apparently there were two volumes, but no known copies of volume one survive, and there is only a single known copy of this second volume.  Presumably these books were well-loved and easily lost.  And that goes to show how beloved nursery rhymes have been, for centuries.  In the mid-eighteenth century there were very few children’s books for pure entertainment, and many books that include nursery rhymes straddle the line a little, claiming to be educational.  One could argue, I suppose, that this one teaches at least the first
two letters of the alphabet!  As we shall see, however, while some nursery rhymes are moralizing or educational, many are nonsensical or downright subversive.
        I do not claim that I’m offering the best illustrations during this challenge.  Many of the greatest names in children’s illustration have turned their skills to nursery rhymes, and yet I am ignoring most of them.  That’s because this is a blog about block printing, and that’s what you’re going to get.  But I hope there will still be plenty of entertainment - and even some education - along the way.
        The first illustration is actually an engraving (printed intaglio) rather than a relief print, so it sneaks in here by virtue of its special status of “First.”  Besides, it doesn’t even include the cupboard or the cat, so it isn’t doing anything to illustrate the “story”.  The second includes both As, the B, the cupboard and the cat, and proceeds to stick the poor cat’s head in a pot just to make certain that she can’t see, even with the cupboard door open.  In that regard it actually does the best job of including all the elements.  Our third illustration, however, is certainly the most attractive, with its multiple colors and decorative details.  This one is by Walter Crane, who dominated children’s illustration and book design for a generation.  We’ll be seeing plenty more from him over the course of the alphabet.  Note that the ball on the left is marked with a B so that we really can have a bouncing B!
        Do you have fond memories of nursery rhymes and the person or people who shared them with you?
        And a final note for impressionable children: It isn’t nice to shut the cat in the cupboard.
[Pictures: Engraving from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (Vol. II), published by Mary Cooper, c 1744 (Image from the British Library);
Wood block print from The Nursery Rhymes, printed by J.L. Marks, 1835 (Image from Internet Archive);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from Baby’s Own Alphabet, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1874 (Image from Internet Archive).] 

March 16, 2020

#AtoZChallenge 2020 Theme: Nursery Rhymes

        This is a topic that checks a lot of my favorite boxes:
     - Nursery rhymes are some of the earliest poetry children learn, and usually include rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, wordplay, and other poetical devices.  They’re fun to say.
     - Many of them include fantastical elements that leave you asking Why?  How?  What’s going on here?  And sometimes even WTF?  They invite wondering, and sometimes disputing.
     - I will be featuring nursery rhyme illustrations that are relief block prints.  First and foremost, I will include my own nursery rhyme rubber block prints, most of which appear in my book Hey Diddle Diddle! and Other Rhymes.  I’ll be supplementing with wood block printed illustrations which come from some of the oldest books of nursery rhymes, as well as some more recent block prints I was able to find.
     - Because nursery rhymes are from oral tradition and have been around for a long time, there are a lot of different types and styles and variations.  Some derive from riddles, some from jokes, some tell a story, some just state the obvious, some derive from street vendors’ cries, some from lullabyes, some accompany hand play or games…  You get the idea!
        Whether these rhymes are childhood friends or unfamiliar and strange to you, I hope the illustrations and commentary will give you a little bit of new insight.  As for the historical and political origins of some of these rhymes, I’ll mention a few, but most of the alleged origins you may have heard of have absolutely no evidence to back them up.  Many people have heard, for example, that “Ring around the rosie” is full of references to the Great Plague.  There’s actually no historical evidence for this, and in fact the oldest known versions of the rhyme don’t even include the references that are often cited as relating to the
plague.  (It's nice to know that there's something that's unrelated to pandemic these days.)  Anyway, for the most part I’ll be taking these odd little “stories” on their own merits.  I like imagining the before, after, and around the edges of these little vignettes.
        Today I have some fun illustrations to get you in the spirit.  The first, from the title page of a 12-page chapbook, shows the magnificence of nursery rhymes.  The handsome boy exults in his nursery book while the beautiful doting mother looks on complacently, surrounded by the genteel splendor that will be yours, too, if your children’s moral and intellectual progress is properly developed with the reading of these amusing and educational verses.
        The rest of today’s block prints illustrate well-known rhymes that you will recognize if you had a traditional English-speaking childhood.  Most of them are represented by two illustrations each, for variety.  Altogether these block prints span about two centuries of books.
        Some of my favorite touches include the catkins on the tree behind Bo-Peep, which look like the tails that her sheep left behind them.  I like the graphic quality of Mother Hubbard’s big, blank black cupboard.  The older illustration of Jack and Jill goes for humorous exaggeration, and I’m also amused by My Son John’s evident self-satisfaction with his unconventional sleeping attire, well captured by the contemporary artist David Frampton.
        As always, I’m doing a modified A-to-Z schedule, starting early so that I can take some days off during April, so I’ll begin with A in my next post, but I will always include a link to the correct letter on any day in April, for those who want to keep on the proper schedule.  I hope you’ll stop by and comment!
        Do you have a favorite nursery rhyme?  We’ll see whether I feature it; you’ve got 26 chances!
        Here's where you can find the rest of the A to Z Challenge and links to all the participating blogs and their Theme Reveal posts.

[Pictures: Wood block print from The Nursery Rhymes, printed by J.L. Marks, 1835 (Image from Internet Archive);
Little Bo-Beep has lost her sheep…, color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Little Bo-Peep, Jack and Jill, and Old Mother Hubbard, details from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Jack and Jill went up the hill, wood block print from Mother Goose’s Quarto of Nursery Rhymes published by McLoughlin Bros., nineteenth century (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard…, wood block print perhaps by Joseph Crawhall, from Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog printed by J.G. Rusher, nineteenth century (Image from Internet Archive);
Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John…, color wood block print by David Frampton from My Son John by Jim Aylesworth, 1994.]

March 13, 2020

Get Well Soon

        Life has gotten very strange for many of us, with working from home for those who can, schools closed, events cancelled, store shelves cleared by hoarders, and a sense of foreboding over it all, as we wait to see how this will unfold.  I have so many wonderful artist and author events planned for this spring and summer, and am wondering how many, if any, will end up happening.  It’s tough to work so hard on preparing something, only to have it wiped away.  And of course that’s not even considering the fears for people’s health and well-being.  So today I have some beautiful block prints for you that I hope will be cheerful, soothing, and stress-relieving.
        These are made by Daryl V. Storrs, a Vermont artist who works in pastels as well as wood and lino block prints.  She’s all about the color, and uses as many as 6 separate blocks with as many as 10 colors for each piece.  All her work is landscapes, and many are sunset or nighttime.  Even the night views tend to be bright and colorful.  This first piece evokes a warm, summer morning.  The
colors make use of atmospheric perspective, with the warmer tones in the foreground.  The general contours of the scene are fairly realistic, but the individual shapes and patterns are quite stylized, a combination I find very pleasing.  It’s very detailed, being built up from five different blocks, but still gives an impression of simplicity.
        The second piece also uses five blocks, and while the over-all design is much simpler, the colors are complex and wonderfully layered.  This is one of those bright, happy nights, reminiscent, in its own way, of van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
        I didn’t want to include only the blues and greens, even though those tend to be my favorites out of Storrs’s work.  Her other favored palette seems to be oranges and purples, which give a scene a very sunset sort of look.  This is another piece with wonderfully detailed textures - and again the patterns seem a little van-Gogh-esque, even though daubing paint in a whirl of emotion is a very different process from the careful planning, carving, and layering required for relief block printmaking.  I especially like how Storrs spangles her grassy and leafy areas with larger, brighter shapes among the more subtly textured backgrounds.
        And finally, another warm Italian landscape.  This one uses only three blocks, and delivers a fantastic graphic punch.  I like the contrast of the vivid green, intense black, and soothing blue sky.  I like the bits of carviness adding to the texture of the foreground shrubbery, and the various patterns throughout the landscape.  It is simultaneously cheerful and comforting.
        Hang in there, everyone.  Take care of yourselves and your loved ones, and don’t let the fear lead to stupidity or cruelty toward others.  And keep washing those hands!

[Pictures: Italian Landscape I, 5 block woodcut by Daryl Storrs, 2009;
Dancing Trees, 5 block woodcut by Storrs, 2008;
Stitched in Fiction, 6 block linocut by Storrs, 2019;
Paesaggio Di Torri, 3 block woodcut by Storrs, 2007 (All images from]

March 9, 2020

Here's Something Cool: TARDIS Refrigerator

        Here’s a clever novelty for the serious fan: transforming a refrigerator or door of your house.  Dr Who’s TARDIS makes a great subject for this because it’s a roughly compatible in size and shape to a refrigerator, of course, but also because one could believe that the actual TARDIS had materialized in the kitchen wall, the sort of thing it might plausibly do.
        When I got poking around, I found a number of other nice sci fi/fantasy ideas for door transformations: a slab of carbonite with Han Solo encased, the west gate of Moria, any sort of Top Secret lab door… 
        I found a picture of an R2-D2 refrigerator, but it would really be better for a mini-fridge that is the right size.  Also, it’s never going to be perfect unless you actually make a rounded top for it, so what R2-D2 does lend himself to is a trash bin.  I went looking, and sure enough…
        Naturally I most admire the hand-made transformations for fridges or other doors, but it turns out that there are quite a few places where you can buy “skins” on-line, featuring photos that can be adhered to the surface of your choice.  I have to suspect that very few of these stores actually have permission to legally sell licensed property from Dr Who or Star Wars or anything else.  However, here’s a nice hand-made bookshelf that’s another TARDIS.
        I’m not the sort to want something like this front and center (and large) in my house.  I think the cooler option might be something like a Narnia mural on the back wall of your coat closet.  You could even add a lamppost light back there.  Or what about turning a dog- or cat-flap into a mini entrance to Hogwarts’s Chamber of Secrets, or into a small door like in Alice in Wonderland?
                        Doors are undeniably special (says the author of The Extraordinary Book of Doors), so it’s easy to see the appeal of adding some magic to the everyday doors in our lives.  What door (or other household object) would you most like to transform?

[Pictures: TARDIS refrigerator from here;
R2-D2 trash bins from here and here;
TARDIS bookcase from here;
Dangerous door from here.]

March 4, 2020

Münter's Portraits

        Gabriele Münter (Germany, 1877-1962) is primarily known as an Expressionist painter, and of her painting she said, “I could not paint fast enough.  My pictures are all moments of life - I mean instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously.”  This is not a style that seems to fit very well with block printing, which even at its roughest and most spontaneous requires a measured break between carving and printing.  Block printing does not give instant gratification the way pencil or paint can.  There are Expressionist block prints, however, but Münter’s linoleum block prints are not very expressionistic at all.  They are carefully planned, smoothly drawn and carved, and precisely printed.  I have for you today three portraits done in lino block prints by Münter.
        All three of these block prints were done in 1906 and 1907, and all three use two blocks for two colors.  The two colors are used in a generally chiaroscuro style, leaving white (paper showing through) only for highlights, and using black for heavy shadows.  Today’s third portrait is a fairly straightforward example, although its description states that it’s printed in two shades of green, rather than straight-up black and grey.  The first portrait is interesting, however, because it uses the midtone block for something beyond just the highlights of the main figure.  Although the grey block does have highlights carved out for the cheekbone and collar as you’d expect, it also shows a whole ‘nother figure in the background.  The second woman and the kitchen in which she works are
really quite detailed, and I love the way they give the piece subtle interest.
        The second portrait is of Vasily Kandinsky playing the harmonium.  Münter and Kandinsky were both interested in the relationship between music and visual art.  In this piece the white of the paper highlights the lamplight falling across the music and piano keys, and also the flowers on a little bracket shelf above.  I like the thin line defining the top edge of Kandinsky’s arm and hand while all the rest of him is solid black.  Interestingly, we also have a sketch of this scene from
one of Münter’s sketchbooks, showing how she refined the image in some areas and simplified in others, to get a block print that is not at all Expressionist in style.

[Pictures:  Mme. Vernot mit Aurelie, color linoleum cut by Gabriele Münter, 1906 (Image from artnet);
Kandinsky playing the Harmonium, color linoleum cut by Münter, 1907;
Pencil sketch of Kandinsky playing the harmonium by Münter (Images from Dr. Moeller & Cie.);
Mrs. Vernot, color linocut by Münter, 1906 (Image from National Gallery of Art).]