November 27, 2020

Word of the Month - Pangram

        Here’s a piece I finished at the beginning of the month, representing the most famous pangram in the English language: The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.  This is a small piece, and really just a mild amusement.  However, in the planning of it I got sucked down the rabbit hole of which dog breeds are the laziest, and also the rabbit hole of pangrams in other languages.  A pangram is a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, with as few repetitions as possible.  A perfect pangram would have no repetitions at all, which really isn’t possible in English (unless you cheat with abbreviations or other non-words), but languages that write with syllabaries have it much easier in this regard.  They have more elements to work with, and don’t have to worry about the constant need for additional vowels.  I learned that Japanese has some amazing pangrams, including a famous poem that has been used as the equivalent of alphabetical order!
        Back in English, the quick brown fox is first mentioned in The Boston Journal in 1885, but the context (“A favorite copy set by writing teachers for their pupils”) implies that the sentence was already well known, at least in typing-teacher circles.  In addition to typing and shorthand practice, the jump of the brown fox and lazy dog were the first message sent to test the Moscow-Washington hotline between the USA and USSR governments in 1963, they show up in cryptography tests, and they are widely used to display fonts.  Although the fox and dog are the most famous pangram, they are, at 33 letters, not the shortest.  In my opinion, the best one with only 28 letters (the shortest English has without cheating) is Waltz, bad nymph, for quick jigs vex.  I am also particularly pleased by the 29-letter Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.
        If you like this sort of thing, I highly recommend the book Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, which is a very cleverly written fable about authoritarianism, in which letters of the alphabet are successively banned, and the characters have to speak and write in ever more convoluted ways to avoid the forbidden letters.  It centers on the supposed divinity of the fictional inventor of the famous pangram, although they use the version The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, which has 35 letters.  While a pangram uses all the letters of the alphabet, writing in which one or more letters is purposely omitted, as in Dunn’s novel, is called a lipogram.
        As for my illustration of the momentous leap forever immortalized in the English language, it simply struck me as a fun little block to carve and print.  It’s been hard to feel very ambitious in this ninth month of everything-cancelled, but I am very grateful to be able to make the occasional small piece that cheers me up.

[Picture: Pangram, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020.]

November 23, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 3

         It’s time for another round of everyone’s favorite game!  This one is a little different because unlike most of our creatures, the craziness of today’s beast is not the standard medieval portrayal.  It appears to be the rather random personal interpretation of the illustrator of a copy of Der naturen bloeme from the first quarter of the fourteenth century.  I cannot read the medieval Dutch text to see whether there’s any clue as to why this illuminator thought the beast should look like this, and I certainly can’t think of any reason in the usual descriptions of the creature.  So, being forewarned that it’s random, make your guess!

November 18, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 2

         Now you know how to play the game, so here’s another illustration for you to identify.  This one comes from a manuscript of Der Naturen Bloeme dating to about 1450-1500, a relatively late copy of a work, an encyclopedia of natural history, that was written about 200 years earlier, based on another work even older than that.  Such is the way of medieval books.  What I like best about this creature is how very happy it is.  It looks just a little mischievous, but in the most good-natured possible way.  What creature is this cheerful fish-thing meant to be?  Make your guess, and then…

November 13, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 1

         I have a new game for you to play, which will be fun for all.  It’s true that it doesn’t feature block prints, and its connection to fantasy is only the sort of inadvertent fantasy spawned by the wild imaginations of ignorant medieval illuminators.  Nevertheless, it amuses me, and I thought it might amuse you.  So without further ado, let’s get started.  Round 1!
        Here is an illustration from a manuscript that was completed in 1471 and resides in the collection of the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The book relates characters from the gospels to the saints and the Old Testament, but along with this content there are bonus illustrations providing a bestiary cycle along the bottoms of the pages.  I have censored the places in the image where the illustration is labelled, just in case you are someone who would look for a clue in the medieval Latin.  So, what are these charming, furry, blue critters?

November 9, 2020

Here's Something Cool: Sneinton Dragon

         This magnificent dragon sculpture glowers over Sneinton, a suburb of Nottingham, England.  It is stainless steel, and was created in 2006 by craftsman Robert Stubley (he hesitates to call himself an artist, having been a welder by trade).  Stubley had made a few other dragon sculptures previously, apparently just for fun, but was never trained as an artist.  He’s obviously a natural.  He says, “I thought, ‘I’ll have a go at making a dragon in my spare time.’  So I made one and I just got carried away with it then, thinking, ‘How can I use this medium, stainless steel, and how can I form it, and how can I get the results that I want?’”
        Residents of Sneinton were polled as to what sort of public art they’d like, and they chose a dragon.  This may refer to the history of Sneinton, because in 1914 social historian Robert Mellors wrote, “For more than half a century there has existed in certain parts of Nottingham a monster who has devoured in the first year of their lives a large number of infants… His name is SLUM.”  On the other hand, perhaps people requested a dragon sculpture simply because dragons are cool!
        I have not been to Sneinton to see this dragon myself, but it looks most excellent.  Its wingspan is 15 or 16 feet, and it has a lovely variety of texture, from rough scales to gleaming wings.  I wish my town would put up a cool dragon sculpture like this!

[Pictures: Sneinton Dragon, stainless steel sculpture by Robert Stubley, 2006 (Photographs by KevS from Wikimedia Commons and Tracey Whitefoot from Atlas Obscura).]

November 4, 2020

Honzo Zufu

         Honzo Zufu is a botanical book by Iwasaki Tsunemasa (Japan, 1786-1842), a botanist (among other studies) and samurai.  I gather that he is also the artist who made the gorgeous and scientifically accurate illustrations throughout the book — thousands of illustrations, as the book contains something like 92 volumes.  There is, however, not a lot of available information about this book, and what I could find gave me a fair bit of uncertainty.  Apparently the early volumes were produced in 
wood block print, although sources are contradictory as to whether they were color prints, or black-ink-only prints watercolored afterwards.  Later volumes were originally produced in watercolor, but then it may be that the entire thing was reproduced in wood block print after Iwasaki’s death, but I could not find any versions of that edition on-line.
        But uncertainty is not something any of us needs more of right now, so don’t worry about all that.  What we need is a bit of beauty, and that’s why I picked these pieces to share today.  These particular pieces are all wood block prints, and the really flashy flowering plants appear in the later volumes illustrated in watercolor, but in some ways these quieter plants are more soothing.  Certainly you can admire how Iwasaki arranged his compositions to show off even relatively plain plants to best effect.  He’s one of the few people I know who ranks with Maria Sybilla Merian in presenting science with true artistry, although I don’t know whether he made any scientific discoveries (as Merian did) or simply compiled and presented current knowledge.
        One of the things I find particularly appealing is the way the two-page spreads are used.  Even though each page has its own frame, the plants cross the divide.  Sometimes that’s because a plant is spread wide (or tall, although I haven’t included any with that composition) across the full space, but even when the two pages are devoted to separate plants, as in the third and fourth pictures here, Iwasaki still makes sure to bring some leaves across the divide to unify the spread.  This is very different from, say, Merian or comparable European art.
        My ability to tell you more about the book or the plants themselves is limited by my inability to read Japanese, so while I can identify many of the plants, I don’t know them all.  Just click on the pictures to make them bigger, breathe deeply, and enjoy.

[Pictures: Something in the legume family, Plate 17, Volume 5;

Ferns, Pl. 5, Vol. 6;

I don’t know what, Pl. 14, Vol. 6;

Spider lilies, Pl. 35, Vol. 7;

I don’t know what, Pl. 26, Vol. 8, all from Honzo Zufu by Iwasaki Tsunemasa, c 1828-1844 (All Images from National Diet Library).]