October 4, 2021

Fungus Among Us

         This is the time of year when mushrooms spring up everywhere overnight like aliens.  In my last couple of walks through the woods - not even very long walks - I have come across dozens of different species (close to 50) pushing up through the leaf mold and appearing on trees, some shy, others bold as brass.  I took lots of pictures and you can see a few that I shared on my daily Instagram; but for this blog  it has to be block prints.  
        I’ve started with a pleasing linocut print found on Etsy, where, to judge by my quick search, mushrooms are fairly popular.  I’ll admit that I’m not a true mushroom lover, either to eat or to decorate my house with, but I do find them quite fascinating scientifically.  This first piece is definitely not a 
scientific botanical print, but it does capture some of the sheer exuberance of mushroomage that I’ve been seeing on my recent walks.  There are also some fun hidden details, such as snails and caterpillars.
        If we want to see some attempts to depict fungi more scientifically, we can turn to the early botanical encyclopaedias of the Renaissance.  These assorted fungi appear in the pioneering work by Carolus Clusias, one of the most influential of sixteenth-century botanists, whose study of the mushrooms of Central Europe was particularly valuable.  You can see that the wood block prints that illustrate his work are not particularly artistic in the sense of attractive compositions, but they do include careful details, and varied views in order to highlight distinctive features.
        The Honzo Zufu, a Japanese botanical encyclopaedia from the nineteenth century, manages to add some artistic aesthetic into its scientific illustrations.  These hand-watercolored wood block prints are less detailed than those from Clusius, but may be among the most cheerful mushrooms ever seen!  (You can see more about the Honzo Zufu in this previous post.)
        Returning to views of mushrooms depicted chiefly as art, here are two pieces from some of my favorite twentieth-century printmakers.  These both depict the famously poisonous fly agaric mushroom.  The first, by Grace Albee (previous post about her here), seems to be purely 
decorative.  Its red ink grabs the attention just like the red caps of the mushroom - but there is one tiny hint of memento mori to set off the deadly mushrooms: the small black fly.  (On the other hand, maybe there is no significance to the fly other than the fact which gives the mushroom its name: it is traditionally used for catching flies.)  The piece by M.C. Escher, by contrast, seems to be all about the allegory of the strange toadstool, which can be hallucinogenic as well as poisonous.  The Dutch verse beneath translates (according to the best efforts of the internet) as “Growth of mystery, afterglow of the night, void is my resurrection: a sworn splendor.”  I really have no idea what that means, but it’s clearly Deep.
        Let’s wade back out of these deep waters by a return to one last scientific image: a plate from 1562 that shows a variety of mushrooms - except that it really depicts very little variety at all compared with the amazing array of shapes, colors, and growth habits exhibited by mushrooms even just within a mile of my house.  Mushrooms really are strange, alien things, and if you have the opportunity to walk anywhere where something can get a toehold and grow, keep your eyes out for them and prepare to be astounded!

[Pictures: Mushroom Kingdom, linocut print by Laura K. Murdoch (Image from her Etsy shop laurakmurdoch);

Fungus, wood block prints from Rariorum plantarum historia by Carolus Clusius, 1601 (Images from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Mushrooms, hand-colored wood block prints from Honzo Zufu by Iwasaki Tsunemasa, c 1828-1844 (Image from National Diet Library);

Fly Agaric, wood engraving by Grace Albee, 1973 (Image from Davis);

Emblemata, Toadstool, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1931 (Image from mcescher.com);

Fungi, hand-colored wood block print by Wolfgang Meyerpeck, from Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, 1562 (You can see an uncolored print from a 1565 edition at Biodiversity Heritage Library).]


Pax said...

Yes, Amanita mascaria (fly agaric) is definitely poisonous. But after a quick check of wikipedia I learned that there are some 600 different Amanitas, and some of them are not only edible, but healthy and widely sold in local markets where they are known and prevalent. According to my handy little Field Guide -- which stresses never eat a mushroom you cannot positively identify -- the large classification of agarics are "Gill Fungi--mushrooms and Toadstools". So thanks, Anne, for inspiring me to do a little research. I like the prints, too. Have you thought of using some of those recent photographs as inspiration for a new block print?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I will be sharing my mushroom art in due course! =)