December 29, 2021

Words of the Month - From the Cruet

         Some of our oldest, most basic foods can be found in salad dressing, including oil and vinegar.  So where do we get these words?  Their origins are more interesting than you might expect for such ordinary words.

oil - Once upon a time all oil was olive oil.  The word oil derives (by way of French, by way of Latin) from the Greek elaion meaning “olive tree.”  Not until after about 1300 did the (Middle) English word begin to expand its meaning to include other fatty or greasy liquids.

vinegar - Once upon a time all vinegar was wine vinegar.  You can see the wine right there in the word: vin-.  Our word equals “wine + sour” in Old French, ultimately from Latin (although the actual Latin word for vinegar is vinum acetum.)  Oddly, the -egar part of the word is the same as the word eager, which originally meant “strenuous, ardent, fierce,” because the Old French had picked up on the other connotations of the Latin word that meant “sharp, piercing, ardent, zealous” as well as “sour.”

- We’ve got more wine in the mustard, which derives (again by way of Old French) from Latin mustum meaning “new wine,” because the condiment was originally made by mixing the crushed seeds with wine.  From the condiment named after the wine, the word was applied to the seeds (late 13th c) and eventually to the plant (mid 14th c).  The color meaning came much later - mid 19th c.  On a fun side note, Dijon mustard is of course named for the city of Dijon in France, but that city’s name derives from the Latin name Divius, meaning “divine.”

salad - The salad itself was once upon a time vegetables seasoned with brine, and the word derives from Latin for “salted.”  The slaw that might be a particular type of salad comes from the same root, but by way of Dutch.

        So any time you dress a salad your words are seasoned with a long and flavorful linguistic history.  And if you’re eager for vinegar and think mustard divine, you’re right on target.

[Pictures: Antique Cruet, richly Mounted, engraving from advertisement for Mappin & Webb’s, 1895 (Image from ebay);

Cruet-Frame with an arabesque pattern, by Messrs. Elkington, shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851, engraving from The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue: The Industry of All Nations (Image from Hathi Trust);

Six-Bottle Dinner Cruet,  engraving from advertisement for Mappin & Webb’s, 1892 (Image from ebay).]

December 24, 2021

Merry Christmas!

         Today I have four block prints showing a variety of depictions of Christmas scenes.  Up first is a classic renaissance Holy Family by Hans Sebald Beham (Germany, 1500-1550).  Joseph is hard to see, way down low behind Mary - I like to imagine that he’s playing peek-a-boo with Jesus, who is reaching out to him.  For a selection of earlier fifteenth and sixteenth century woodcuts of the nativity, you can see my previous post Nativity 1 in a series tracing depictions of the holy family in relief block prints through the ages.  (The more modern depictions are covered in Nativity 2 and Nativity 3, as well as two more I posted for Christmas 2018.)
        My next Christmas scene for you is set in Africa and I really enjoy the elephant adoring the infant!  This is by Azaria Mbatha (South Africa, b.1941) about whom you can learn more - and even see another episode from the Christmas story - at a previous post.  
Mbatha is known for imbuing his Biblical scenes with African culture and sensibilities, and I think it works really well.  Another of his characteristics is including multiple scenes in each piece, and in this case the four corners each include another scene.  The lower left looks like it may be the three wise men riding in on an elephant, and I’m guessing the lower right may represent the shepherds.    The upper corners look like scenes from the life of Jesus, preaching on the left, and his baptism on the right.
        With the third piece, by Mary Amelia Kretsinger (USA, 1915-2001), we get even more abstract.  Without the title “Christmas,” you probably wouldn’t associate this with Christmas at all, but Kretsinger has let us know that this isn’t just any ordinary star.  I’m actually not sure quite how she made this piece.  If she carved away between the black lines, how is the grain still showing?  So is it perhaps printed with two layers of black, one for the wood grain and then a second for the stronger outlines?  Plus there’s grey and brown presumably printed separately.  I like to think of the brown and black blocks in the lower left as representing the inn and stable, but given that there’s another black block in the upper right, they may not be intended to be anything but abstract shapes.
        And continuing with the star, here are the three wise men heading toward it in a Christmas card design by Herschel C. Logan (USA, 1901-1987).  (Logan made a whole annual series of Christmas card designs and perhaps next year I’ll do a whole post on them.)  I will leave you with Logan’s wish: to those who celebrate Christmas, may it be Very Merry indeed!

[Pictures: Holy Family under a Canopy, woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham, c 1530 (Image from Vassar College);

Nativity scene, linocut by Azaria Mbatha, second half 20th century (Image from MutualArt);

Christmas, color woodcut by Mary Amelia Kretsinger, 1974 (Image from Kansas State University);

Christmas card, color woodcut by Herschel C. Logan, 1925 (Image from Kansas State University).]

December 20, 2021

O Christmas Tree!

         The Christmas tree’s origins are a bit murky, with some historians connecting it with pagan tree worship and the Yule log, others with the eighth century St Boniface, while some trace its origins to the “tree of paradise” associated with medieval mystery plays performed on Christmas Eve.  The modern Christmas tree got its start with Martin Luther, who supposedly added candles to the decoration of the evergreen he brought into his home.  Later resistance to the Christmas tree tradition was strong in Catholic areas and was not because of its supposed pagan connections, but because of its Protestant roots.  (The Vatican did not erect a Christmas tree until 1982.)
        Queen Charlotte displayed a Christmas tree in England at a party in 1800, and Queen Victoria kept up the tradition, whereupon the upper middle classes avidly copied it in the mid-nineteenth century.  Hessian soldiers stationed in Canada set up trees in 1781, but it took a while to move beyond being an ethnic German tradition.  In the United States, the first image of a Christmas tree was published in 1863, but it was Godey’s Lady’s Book and its editor Sarah Josepha Hale that get credit for popularizing it.  An engraving of a fashionable Victorian family basking in the glow of their tree in 1850 was the first widely-circulated image of a “modern” Christmas tree in America, and within about 20-25 years the Christmas tree tradition had become common in the USA.
        There is some magic associated with Christmas trees.  I'm thinking of the scene in “The Nutcracker” ballet where the Christmas tree grows enormous, thus signalling the transition to a fantasy world.  Premiered in 1892, the ballet clearly reflects the late Victorian-era romanticism associated with the decorated tree.
        Anyway, I’ve gathered a few historical engravings of Christmas trees (and a couple of woodcuts).  Most of these trees are placed atop a table, which we still do in our house (although we use a very low side table.)  It’s much more practical - the presents can go underneath and the cat doesn’t get herself into trouble - and I don’t know why this tradition ever changed.  I guess just the usual assumption that bigger must be better.  On the other hand, the one woodcut from 1845 suggests an enormous shrubbery.  I would assume this one must be outdoors, except that the gentleman isn’t wearing a hat, so I don’t know.
        Of course, these prints don’t capture the wonderful colors of a Christmas tree (let alone the scent), but I do like the way some of them show the sparkle and glow, with white carved out all around the trees and their delicate branches.  I do love Christmas trees!

[Pictures: Christmas Eve, engraving, frontispiece from The Stranger’s Gift edited by Hermann Bokum, 1836 (Image from Internet Archive);

Christmas Tree, wood block print from Illustrated London News, Dec. 27, 1845 (Image from The Social Historian);

The Christmas Tree, engraving from Godey’s Lady’s Book, Dec. 1850 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Christmas Tree, wood engraving by Winslow Homer from Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 25, 1858 (Image from Boston Public Library);

F.A.O. Schwartz advertisement, wood block print, 1898 (Image from ebay).]

December 15, 2021

The Frozen Ocean

        Here’s a wintry poem, and an interesting bit of fantasy by Viola Meynall (UK, 1885-1965).  It’s not so much a story as a scenario, a very simple “What if?”  What makes it particularly interesting, though, is that it isn’t asking “What if the ocean froze over?”  Rather, it’s asking, “What if the Ocean chose to freeze?”  Indeed, it is actually freezing itself.

The sea would flow no longer,
It wearied after change,
It called its tides and breakers in,
From where they might range.

It sent an icy message
To every wave and rill;
They lagged, they paused, they stiffened,
They froze, and were still.

It summoned in its currents,
They reached not where they led;
It bound its foaming whirlpools.
“Not the old life,” it said,

“No fishes for the fisherman,
Not bold ships as before,
Not beating loud for ever
Upon the seashore,

“But cold white foxes stepping

Onto my hard proud breast,
And a bird coming sweetly
And building a nest.

“My icebergs shall be mountains,
My silent fields of snow
Unmarked shall join the land’s snowfields —
Where, no man shall know.”

        This ocean is personified - but not too personified.  It is given consciousness, will, and abilities such as communication, but it is definitely not human.  It seems not only tired of being in constant motion, but almost rebellious: no fish for you!  (I can certainly imagine the ocean having had enough of humans on it, although our poor oceans are warming up instead of freezing.)  Some of the images are really lovely, such as, “It summoned in its currents,” and “cold white foxes stepping onto my hard, proud breast.”  By the end Earth is really an alien planet, with its solid ice surface above liquid seas below, like some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  I certainly wouldn’t want to experience a cataclysm like the freezing of the ocean (would the foxes and birds survive, either?), but it makes a great poem!

[Pictures: Sea Ice, color woodblock print by Ina Timling (Image from Etsy shop TimlingPrints);

The Sinking of the Jeannette, wood engraving by G.T. Andrew after a design by M.J. Burns, 1884 (Image from Naval History and Heritage Command);

Arctic Fox and Slope Mountain, woodcut and linocut by Teal Francis, 2016 (Image from]

December 10, 2021

Japanese "Modern" Printmaking

         The Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking of the 17-19th centuries gave way in the twentieth century to two new printmaking movements in Japan.  One was shin-hanga, which aimed to continue the traditions of ukiyo-e into modern times.  The traditional methods were preserved, with art design, woodblock carving, and printing each done by different artisans, with the creative force often coming from the publisher as well as the artist who drew the designs.  The images also tended to evoke nostalgia with traditional views.  On the other hand, these artists incorporated elements of Western art into their work, as well as depicting some more modern views and details in order to update the traditional woodblock print.
        The other 20th-century movement was sosaku-hanga, which was a reaction to the traditional methods of ukiyo-e.  It emphasized the single artist drawing, carving, and printing his (or her, but usually his) creative vision.  It was inspired by Western ideas of solitary artists, as well as by Japanese folk-art traditions.  Block prints from this movement have much more in common with Western ideas of “modern art,” with experimentation, expressionism, spontaneity, and a movement away from traditional conventions of realism.  This movement really took off after World War II.
        Hokusai and Hiroshige are among the most famous ukiyo-e artists, and I’ve linked their names to previous posts featuring their work, plus more here and here.
        Hasui is probably my favorite artist working within the shin-hanga movement and you can see some of his work here, here, and here, but I’ve included today an evocative city street scene by Yoshida Hiroshi.  He was trained in Western oil painting as well as Japanese printmaking, and had a shrewd eye toward how to blend the two for maximum appeal.  There are electric lights and some influences of Western dress, as well as Western one-point perspective, in an image that nevertheless clearly follows in the traditions of ukiyo-e depictions of urban life.  (And another post with Hiroshi here.)
        Today I give you two examples from the sosaku-hanga movement, at the top and bottom of this post.  You can see that both look more “modern” than the shin-hanga piece in the middle.  The last piece, by Shima Tamami, does one of my favorite things: 
using the grain of the wood as part of the picture.  The bare tree trunks are stylized, and the tree texture on the hill in the background is very rough and almost abstract.  Meanwhile, the first piece, by Kasamatsu Shiro, experiments with depicting trees in a different way.  The yellow leaves are actually negative space, showing through beneath the areas that are carved away from the green which forms both the foreground trunks and the fade-away into the distant mountainside.  This is a very different method from traditional Japanese printmaking, in which the shape and color of the trees would have been printed with its own block, and I really like how the negative space works in this.
        In addition, I’ve done previous posts on sosaku-hanga artists HiratsukaMunakata, and Saito if you want to see more examples.

[Pictures: Shadow of a Mountain, color woodblock print by Kasamatsu Shiro, 1959;

Kagurazaka Street after Night Rain, color woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi, 1929;

A Stand of Trees, color woodblock print by Shima Tamami, 1959 (All images from The Clark Museum).]

December 6, 2021

Graphics Extravaganza

         I am not a graphic designer with any official status, whatever that might be.  I’ve never had any classes or earned any degrees, and I really have no idea how graphic design is supposed to be done… Nevertheless, here we are, with me doing all the graphics for Strong Women•Strange Worlds, the group of women and non-binary speculative fiction authors-helping-authors by running twice-monthly group author readings of fantasy, sci fi, and horror, free on Zoom.  For our year-end Holiday Extravaganza we have pulled out all the stops and have six hours of live programming on Zoom on December 12, as well as numerous supplementary activities.  Going on right now, even as we speak, there are micro-fiction contests set by authors on Twitter (@StrangeWorlds2) and a creative scavenger hunt to be found on the web site.  It is actually quite amazing how much fun stuff we have prepared for SFF readers, featuring more than 40 authors in a wide array of creatively reimagined party games that center around our books and stories.  You can see the complete schedule, and by all means register for the party and join us (here!)
        From the art perspective of this blog, however, I wanted to show off some of my graphics.  I had to make over a dozen new images to announce and advertise all the various activities (not to mention the graphics to be used during the activities, which are generally less exciting and more utilitarian.)  It’s been a huge amount of work, but an interesting creative challenge, and I’m actually pretty pleased with myself.  To start with, the SW•SW logo has three silhouetted women with a black and purple-galaxy background, and a purplish planet.  I started fooling around with ways to tweak these elements to evoke a festive, holiday vibe while still remaining tied to our brand look.  (Ha ha - do I sound like a real graphic designer?  Probably not, but you get the idea.)
        Here are a variety of the designs I came up with.  There are a couple of general bits, playing around with making the planet serve for various holiday icons.  I’ve included the bit about the micro-fiction contests, showing the winterized version of our usual galactic background.  Then there are pieces for three of our live events, each distinctive, but still calling back to our theme.  By the way, I will be participating in the 2:00 session of “Speed-Date a Book” and the 4:00 “Whose Scene is it Anyway?”, so if you want to see me and some of my books game-show style, this is your chance!

[Pictures: all designs by AEGN for Strong Women•Strange Worlds, 2021.]