February 28, 2022

Words of the Month - Naked Babies with Wings

         This Valentine’s Day I got thinking about all those little naked babies flying around in Western art, so today we’re going to take a look at just who they are, and what the different words for them actually mean.

Cupid - Cupid is the Roman god of desire and erotic love.  His name derives from the Latin word for “desire,” and started being used in English writings in the late 14th century.  Allegedly Cupid is winged because lovers are flighty, and is portrayed as a child because love is irrational.  He carries arrows because love wounds, and in some Roman myths he actually had arrows of aversion with lead tips as well as arrows of desire with golden tips.  He is often shown as mischievous.  But somewhere along the line this one god began to multiply himself into various aspects of love.  Cicero said there were three Cupids, and during the renaissance writers imagined thousands of the little guys frolicking about 
and causing a certain amount of mayhem.
  Generally speaking, if you see a naked boy with wings and he’s got a bow and arrows, it’s a cupid.

Erotes - The Romans probably got their idea of multiple Cupids from the Greeks, who had the Erotes, a group of gods associated with love and sex, who usually hang out with Aphrodite.  In Greek mythology there are several names associated with distinct Erotes, but they are also often portrayed more generically.  The word is the plural of Eros, the singular Greek god of desire, and the Greek equivalent of Cupid.  As such, in art erotes is usually pretty much just a synonym for multiple cupids.  Yet another word for little love god babies is amoretti, entering English in the 16th century from the Italian diminutive of Amore, from Latin for "love."

cherub - Originally a cherub was an angel, arriving in English in the late fourteenth century by way of Latin and Greek, but originally from Hebrew kerubh meaning “winged angel,” which is why the angels have the Hebrew plural cherubim.   There is not a lot of agreement about the nature of the angels, how highly they’re ranked, their function in heaven, the number of their wings, or whether they’re even human-shaped…  There is a theory that the word cherub is cognate with the word griffin.  In the early eighteenth century, however, we 
begin to see the word used to mean “beautiful child,” and for reasons that I cannot explain, the word came to be conflated with the winged babies so beloved of art.  I guess it was just the mushing together of the connotations of “child” and “angel.”  When cherub is used in this way, the plural is the ordinary English form cherubs.  If you see a naked baby with wings clustering around the throne of God or adoring a saint, it’s a cherub.

putto - The proper term for gratuitous chubby tots in art is putto, and because they usually come in multiples, it’s more common to see the plural which, because the word derives from Italian, is putti.  The word arrived in English in the 1640s, well after the figures arrived in artwork, and derives ultimately from Latin for “young boy.”  (It shares its root with puerile, “childish.”)  Putti originated in classical art, but had a revival when Donatello (Florence, c.1386-1466) began using them in his work, blending the classical connotations of Cupid and the Christian connotations of cherubim, but using them primarily as decorative motifs rather than primarily for their symbolic meaning.  They are often shown around the edges of artworks and not taking part in the main action.  If you see a naked baby with wings (or sometimes without wings) peeking around the edge of an architectural element, or chilling on a cloud off to the side of the sky, it’s a putto.

        But keep in mind that these categories of naked babies with wings are far from distinct, and there are many contexts in which it’s not at all clear whether your winged tot is meant to be angelic or erotic, to symbolize love or innocence, or to be merely decorative.  What about when there’s no bow or arrow, but it’s clearly associated with lovers?  What about when it’s playing Cupid’s lyre but is clearly celebrating a Christian saint?  Who knows… probably even the artist wasn’t thinking all that clearly about it, and just liked the way it looked.  I’ve never done any pictures of them myself, but it’s very evident that artists enjoy depicting naked babies with wings no matter what word you use to describe them.
        (And if you still want more, to learn how money can buy you love, check out previous post Seller of Cupids, or see a few different styles of cherubim and other angels at Herald Angels.)

[Pictures: Terra, engraving by Michiel Mosijn after Cornelis Holsteyn, 1640-55 (Image from Rijksmuseum);
Illustration by Gustave Doré from Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, 1877 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Cupid, engraving by Jean Daullé after C. A. Coypel, 1755 (Image from Met Museum);
Love Minchiate card, hand-colored wood block print by A. Baragioli, 1860-90 (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
A Token of Love,  chromolithograph postcard, anonymous artist, c. 1910 (Image from Missouri Historical Society);
The Triumph of Galatea, engraving by Hendrick Goltzius after Raphael, 1592 (Image from National Gallery of Art);
Title page of Missale Romanum, engraving by anonymous artist, 1639 (Image from Skoklosters Slott);
Adoration of Christ, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1545 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Detail from Assumption of the Virgin, painting by Andrea del Sarto, 1530 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Study for a painted wall decoration, drawing by Antonio de’Dominici, c.1730 (Image from Cooper Hewitt museum);
Detail of sea chart of the English Channel, hand-colored engraving, after 1681 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Detail of a panel of ornament, engraving by Master of the Die after Perino del Vaga, 1530-60 (Image from Met Museum);
Five putti blowing bubbles, engraving by Louis Fabritius Dubourg, ca. 1741 (Image from Rijksmuseum).]

February 23, 2022

William E. Smith's Linoleum Prints

         William E. Smith (USA, 1913-1997) is one of the many Cleveland artists associated with Karamu House.  Founded in 1915 and primarily famous for theater and performing arts, Karamu House was one of the first (and for a long time only) arts organizations in the USA committed to full racial, religious, and economic equality among its artists.  That’s where Smith got his start from living as a teenager by himself in the city to eventually becoming a well-respected artist and teacher.  Because of its inclusion of black artists, Karamu House fostered a community of artists in Cleveland who focussed on the African-American experience in their art, especially through the 1930s and 40s.
        Smith’s work reflects his experience and the experiences of the people around him through the Great Depression and World War II, making a wonderful artistic record of people whose experiences were not often highlighted in that era.  The depth of emotion in this second piece, entitled “War Fatigue,” is beautifully expressed.  The soldier’s posture is moving, but Smith’s use of stark black and white lighting and shadows heightens the impact.
        The man in the third piece also evokes dejection, but where the soldier’s despair is active and consuming, this man’s dejection has become lethargy.  Interestingly, Smith has given two different impressions of the same block different titles.  One is called “Poverty & Fatigue,” while the other is called “Siesta.”  Those give very different interpretations to the piece, and I wonder which title came first, why it was changed, and what Smith’s thought process was in making those decisions.  Either way, however, I love the masterful depictions of the folds and drape of the man’s trousers and the crown of his cap.  The carving is really extremely simple, especially in the background, but incredibly effective.  This is exactly the sort of carving I wish I could do!
        My favorite piece, however, is the first.  On the one hand, I love that this scene is absolutely universal: the love of a parent for an infant.  On the other hand, I love that Smith depicts it by celebrating people whose participation in this universal aspect of humanity is so often not shown.  Western art history has thousands of wonderful images of white mothers and children, but the love of black fathers and children has been almost invisible by comparison.  This piece, with the light beautifully revealing the tenderness of the man holding his infant son, reminds the world, both black and white, both women and men, that yes, this universal experience really can be something we all share.

[Pictures: My Son! My Son!, linoleum cut by William E. Smith, 1941;

War Fatigue, linocut by Smith, 1940;

Poverty & Fatigue, linoleum cut by Smith, 1940 (Images from Cleveland Museum of Art and The Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art).]

February 18, 2022

Sledding Squid

         This delightful linoleum block print by Sarah Smith makes me smile, and I hope it cheers your day, as well!  It is made with three blocks, printing three colors: dark blue, pale blue, and pink.  Because the pink is transparent, there’s also a nice greyish color where it overlaps with the light blue.  My favorite touch is the stocking cap on the tip of the squid’s mantle.  If you wish to read a detailed description of every step along the way of creating this piece, you can read the article here.  It involves great information on the physical process (including transferring the design from block to block so they all match up), as well as a wonderful description of the creative process (including various design choices).
        The reason for a small post today, featuring just the one fun piece, is that very shortly I will be heading off to Boskone, the first in-person convention in two years.  After the enforced hiatus, I’m delighted to be back to a busy convention schedule:

   • Art Show (60 pieces!)

   • Presenting my talk “The Fantastic Bestiary” (always a little stressful wondering whether the tech will work)

   • Panel of artists talking about “Different Artists, Different Mediums”

   • Panel of authors talking about “Scary Fairies”

   • Panel of authors talking about “Poetry Matters”

   • Broad Universe Rapid-Fire Reading (much dithering over what to read, but I’ve finally chosen an excerpt)

   • Drop-in workshop where people can make mini block prints

        I’ve put labels in the side-bar pointing out prior posts related to the subjects of the three panels, in case anyone’s interested.  Of course there has been lots of other preparation over the past couple of weeks for all those items of the schedule, but (fingers crossed) I think all is ready to roll.  While there will be inevitable changes from the days BC (having to wear a mask all day, for one thing), I am optimistic.

        I hope you have a wonderful weekend, whatever your plans!

[Squids love sledding, color linoleum block print by Sarah Smith, 2015 (Image from Dartmouth Library Muse);

Packed up artwork, photo by AEGN, 2022.]

February 14, 2022

How to Make a Love Potion

         This post is a case study of the strange and twisty ways of creativity and creation.  It begins back in the summer, when I was approached by Miguel O. Mitchell to collaborate on his own project of love: a book of poetry combining chemical elements and space aliens.  So there were actually seeds being planted before that, in May when Miguel saw my work at a virtual convention.  (You can see more about Miguel’s project in previous post Periodic Table of Aliens.)  I agreed to do illustrations for 14 of his poems, and one of those was about sodium.  Miguel’s poems were fun to illustrate because they gave only a few clues to indicate what the aliens might look like, which left things wide open for me to add my own ideas to the mix.  All Miguel gave me for sodium was that “in the slime of Oodleplops [it] is part of fake love potions.”  Out of those two lines I had a vivid image of a gelatinous, slimy creature tending the counter in some dark, old-time general store, shelves crammed with every sort of patent medicine.  I created the block print which I called “Love Potion.”
        Having completed the block, a whole different image popped into my head, placing my picture in a story that actually had nothing to do with Miguel’s poem.  Now I was thinking of some sort of Lovecraftian Old One living on Earth, rather than an alien somewhere on another world.  I am not a fan of horror, and was imagining how such an Old One might be quite fond of the patrons of his shop, and thus the whole story spooled itself out from the premise of a friendly, slimy, tentacled Old One selling all manner of magical wares… including love potions.
        I want to make two points about the process of writing that story.  First, it is very rare for inspiration to strike me so definitively and with such a fully-formed story.  I am not the sort to talk about stories “writing themselves,” or bolts of inspiration from the blue.  This story was very unusual for me in coming so easily.  But the second point is that it’s still not accurate to say it came out of nowhere.  Perhaps it came like a bolt of lightning, but it was lightning that struck and fused together all the grains of sand that were already lying around.  Or to return to the metaphor I used earlier, various seeds had been planted much earlier.  There was the seed that came from Miguel’s Oodleplop, of course.  There was my own love of the reconstructed 1900 Main Street and general store in the Cleveland Historical Society Museum, plus Woolworths, where it seemed like you could find anything from sneakers to lightbulbs to accounting books to parakeets, plus the beautiful old cash registers that a few shops still had when I was a child.  There were the seeds of my general attitudes toward monsters and love potions and the modern dating scene.  There were all the bits and pieces that are rattling around in my mind all the time, waiting for the seed of an idea to glom onto.  But certainly it felt like magic that a handful of those bits and pieces and seeds did glom together so satisfyingly.
        And it was another piece of magic, perhaps, that I submitted the story to the editors of Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and they decided that it would be a fun piece to publish for Valentine’s Day.  In another funny little bit of serendipity, I did not offer them my original illustration, but when the editors went looking for an appropriate illustration, they came across mine, and asked to use it!  They also asked if I’d like to do a second illustration for the story, which I did.  So I think this process illustrates the strange and wonderful combination of preparation (gathering and cherishing all those seeds) and luck (meeting Miguel, and having an editor like my piece) that go into getting a story out into the world.
        Meanwhile, I am keeping the rejection pipeline flowing with nearly a dozen other short stories, so I hope to have news of other publications before too long.  But in the meantime, please go on over to Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, read my story, and support their work in bringing SFF stories to the world.

[Pictures: Love Potion, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021 (first published in Periodic Table of Alien Species (Elements 1-86) by Miguel O. Mitchell);

Ineffable Feathersquid, digital illustration by AEGN, 2022 (first Published in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Feb. 2022).]

February 9, 2022

The Brass Horse

         Today’s poem is an unusual one, as it is just a very small excerpt from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (England, c1340-1400).  The Canterbury Tales are a diverse collection of stories, reported as being told by a diverse collection of people.  They range from lewd tales of sex and farting, to sermons on penance, to animal fables, to tales of courtly love.  There are also several stories that we would class as fairy tales, which include elements that are present in many other traditional fairy tales, both from Europe and the 1001 Nights.  The Squire’s Tale is one of these.  Chaucer clearly satirizes the Squire in the portrayal of his verbose, tangential style, which in the end is interrupted by the next character basically saying, “Great, we get the idea,” and proceeding with his own story.  Nevertheless, the Squire gets to tell us about some excellent fantastical elements.  Genghis Khan is holding a party, when in comes a knight bearing gifts from the King of Arabia and India.  These gifts are a brass horse that can carry the rider anywhere in 24 hours or less, a mirror which shows what all the king’s friends and enemies are up to, a ring which allows the wearer to understand the language of birds and the medicinal uses of plants, and a sword that cuts through any armor and can also heal from the wounds it causes.
        Because the tale is unfinished, we never actually find out what happens with any of the gifts (except the ring), but we do get a long exposition about the magical objects and what all the courtiers thought of them.  Today’s excerpt comes from that section.  I offer below two “translations.”  One is sort of halfway between the original Middle English and a modern translation.  It changes as little as possible, but does modernize some of the grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.  The second version is more modern, so pick that if you’re more interested in the sense than the linguistics!  (If you want to read the original, it’s here.  My excerpt begins at line 199.  Or try a twenty-first century colloquial version here.)

But evermore their moste wonder was
How that it coulde go, and was of brass;
It was of Faerie, as the people seem'd.
Diverse folk diversely they deem'd;
As many heads, as many wittes been.
They murmured, as doth a swarm of been,
And made skills after their fantasies,
Rehearsing of the olde poetries,
And said that it was like the Pegasee,
The horse that hadde winges for to flee;
Or else it was the Greeke's horse Sinon,
That broughte Troye to destruction,
As men may in the olde gestes read.
Mine heart," quoth one, "is evermore in dread;
I trow some men of armes be therein,
That shape them this city for to win:
It were right good that all such thing were know."
Another rowned to his fellow low,
And said, "He lies; for it is rather like
An apparence made by some magic,
As jugglers playen at these feastes great."
Of sundry doubts they jangle thus and treat.
As lewed people deeme commonly
Of thinges that be made more subtilly
Than they can in their lewdness comprehend;
They deeme gladly to the badder end. 

But evermore their greatest wonder was,
How it could go, being made all of brass;
It was of Faery, as to people seemed.
And divers folk diversely of it deemed;

So many heads, so many wits, one sees.

They buzzed and murmured like a swarm of bees,

And played about it with their fantasy,

Recalling what they'd learned from poetry;

Like Pegasus it was that mounted high,

That horse which had great wings and so could fly;

Or else it was the horse of Greek Sinon

Who brought Troy to destruction, years agone.

As men in these old histories may read.

"My heart," said one, "is evermore in dread;

I think some men-at-arms are hid therein

Who have in mind this capital to win.

It were right well that of such things we know."

Another whispered to his fellow, low,

And said: "He lies, for it is rather like

Some conjured up appearance of magic,

Which jugglers practise at these banquets great."

Of sundry doubts like these they all did treat,

As vulgar people chatter commonly

Of all things that are made more cunningly

Than they can in their ignorance comprehend;

They gladly judge they're made for some base end.

        The reason I picked this section is that I love seeing what the contemporary audience might have made of the possibility of magic.  They knew it had to have some sort of trick about it for a brass horse to be able to move, but what form of magic was it?  Did it come from fairyland, was it more like the living Pegasus, or more like the Trojan Horse that was all treachery instead of true magic?  Or was it simply a stage illusion?  There is also in other parts of the tale much discussion of alchemy.  This is a fun reminder that just because people in the fourteenth century believed in the possibility of magic doesn’t mean they uncritically believed in all claims of magic.  If this story were set in the present, the people might be speculating that it was made with alien technology, or came from high-tech labs in China and was stuffed full of surveillance programs.  Plus, I’m amused by the Squire’s (or possibly Chaucer’s) satirical comment that people always try to come up with elaborate explanations for the things they’re too stupid to understand.
        (One fun linguistic note about the Fairyland explanation: the original Middle English doesn’t say that the horse comes from Fairyland but that it “was a fairye.”  I think this usage reflects the very earliest meaning of the word “fairy” in English, which was neither the place nor its denizens, but rather “enchantment.”  You can see more history of the word here.)
        What do you think is the best explanation of

This steed of brass, that easily and well
Can in the space of one day naturel
(This is to say, in four-and-twenty hours),
Whereso you list, in drought or else in show'rs,
Beare your body into every place
To which your hearte willeth for to pace,
Withoute harm to you, through foul or fair.
Or if you list to fly as high in air
As doth an eagle, when him list to soar,
This same steed shall bear you evermore
Withoute harm, till ye be where you lest
(Though that ye sleepen on his back, or rest).

[Pictures: There came a knight upon a steed of brass, illustration by Walter Appleton Clark, 1914 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Ebony Horse, linocut and woodcut by Bill Reily, 1960 (Image from theMcNay);

Ebony Horse, frontispiece by John Dickson Batten from More Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights, 1895 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Mounting the Ebony Horse, illustration by Marc Chagall from Four Tales from the Arabian Nights, 1948 (Image from Indianapolis Museum of Art).]

And the rest of the versions I've excerpted above, here and here.

February 5, 2022

A Robot

         I’ll keep it brief today, but I wanted to share a funny color woodcut of a robot by Werner Drewes (Germany/USA, 1899-1985).  I introduced the wood block prints of Drewes previously in two posts, one featuring abstract pieces, and the other featuring figurative pieces.  Drewes is a rare artist who seems equally comfortable with both abstraction and figurative work, but this robot seems to be about halfway in between.  From an art perspective it’s all about shapes and planes of color, but it’s interesting to add in a science fiction perspective.  How many of Drewes’s choices have to do with pure aesthetics, and how many have to do with his imagination about what this robot might be like, how it might function, or what role it might play?  Do those little grey rectangles at the bottom indicate that it walks around on legs, or does the large, low mass of it indicate that it glides around more like R2-D2 or a Dalek?  It certainly has an arm with a hand on one side, and there’s some suggestion of a hand on the other side, as well, but it is not perfectly symmetrical - and why should a robot be symmetrical, anyway?
        Is this robot sentient and intelligent?  Does it speak perfect English in a metallic monotone as so many robots imagined in the mid-20th-century do?  How about all the antennae of various sorts on its head - is it being remotely controlled, or are those sensors by which it navigates its own world, or are they receivers and transmitters by which it communicates?  It doesn’t bother with a humanoid face, so we don’t really know whether it can function as a sentient among humans, or whether it is the sort of robot that deals only with other machines and computers.
        I have not made a block print of a classic robot myself (although I’ve gotten close with a faux block print of cyborg aliens for Periodic Table of Alien Species by Miguel O. Mitchell, and the steampunk creatures in my own book On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination) but this funny piece has me mulling how much fun it might be to design a robot myself.  What kind of robots spark your imagination?  Jetsons-style or Blade Runner-style or Toyota factory-style?  (And you can see a couple more posts with just a little more about SFF robots here and here.)

[Picture: The Robot, color woodcut by Werner Drewes, before 1971 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);

Starbase Sector's End (Gallium), faux woodblock by AEGN, 2021.]