June 24, 2022

Who Is Catching Whom?

         Any time you hear a story, it’s wise to consider who is telling it.  “History is written by the victors” is the most obvious reminder, but every story has a particular perspective depending on the teller.  The idea of a sailor catching a mermaid for a wife may be an old favorite, but we always think of it from the same point of view: the human, not the merperson; the male, not the female.  And this perspective has the effect of making the human male the active protagonist while the mermaid becomes the passive prize to be won.  Consider all those selkie stories discussed in this prior post, in which the selkie is forced onto land when her sea skin is stolen by the human man.  Well, story spinner that I am, it is obvious to me that the mermaid, too, would have a point of view.  And feminist that I am, I’m all about relationships that are equitable and mutually satisfactory.  If a fisherman has caught a mermaid, this strikes me as pleasing and romantic only if the mermaid has equally caught the fisherman.
        (I will note that “The Little Mermaid” is told from the mermaid’s point of view with the mermaid as the protagonist, but still, it’s hardly a healthy, equal relationship.)
        (I will also note that you can enjoy some other block prints of merfolk here.)
        I remembered an interesting piece by Boris Artzybasheff that has neither top nor bottom, as it can be viewed equally either way.  (You can see that piece here.)  This idea struck me as perfect for my mermaid and her fisherman (or, of course, my fisherman and his mermaid).  I actually made a little sketch of the idea a number of years ago, but only came back to it last month when I was looking for ideas of blocks to carve during my spring shows.  I had fun on the pattern and texture of the fisherman’s sweater, but otherwise it’s a fairly simple piece: cheerful, friendly, a little cartoonish in style, and printed in a mix of bright watery colors just for fun.  I made the design balanced and symmetrical, and I labelled it with the title on one edge and the signature on the opposite so that both orientations are equal.
        The real complication comes when I go to mat, frame, and display.  As soon as the piece is hung on a wall, a decision has to be made.  Who is catching whom?  I’ve matted one of the edition, and put the label on the back oriented to the side, so as to determine neither a top nor a bottom.  But the framed piece has to have a top.  Which way up would you hang it?  Or would you switch it every once in a while and see whether anyone notices?  Or, of course, you could always get two (they’re not expensive - ha!) and hang one each way.  What story will you tell about this happy pair?


[Picture: Big Catch, rubber block print by AEGN, 2022.]

June 20, 2022

Juneteenth

         I wasn’t able to find any block prints directly related to Juneteenth, so I’m celebrating instead with a couple of African-American printmakers whose work celebrates their identity and experience.  I’ve started with a piece by Elizabeth Catlett (USA/Mexico, 1915-2012).  I’ve featured her before, so you can revisit a couple of pieces here and here.  She’s done a lot of very moving work exploring the experiences of Black Americans during slavery and through the twentieth century.  Today, however, I’ve picked a piece that is more celebratory.  The silhouetted people don’t have obviously happy expressions, but their bright colors and the title of the piece “Magic People,” make me feel that it’s about resilience and survival and working together to stand up together.
        Next a beautiful piece by Deborah Grayson, an artist I know very little about.  In her statement she talks about exploring silence and what it reveals and protects about the inner lives of Black women.  I love the expression on this face, with the closed eyes looking inward and the hint of a smile at what she sees there.  As a white woman I can’t speak for what the experience of Juneteenth means for Black people in this country, but it seems to me that while it is a celebration of the end of slavery, it’s also an acknowledgement of the disgraceful injustices that were supposed to have ended much sooner (or, indeed, should never happened at all), and a reminder to keep envisioning a future that addresses and eliminates the injustices with which we’re still plagued.  Today’s first piece represents the celebration, and this second piece represents that dreaming of the future.
        The third piece is by Paul Peter Piech (USA/Wales, 1920-1996) who is not African-American, but whose piece seemed appropriate to represent that third element of Juneteenth: the acknowledgement of the wrongs that still need to be addressed.  (I’ve featured Piech before, so you can see more of his work here.)
        My own awareness of Juneteenth is relatively recent.  Do you have any stories or memories that make this holiday especially meaningful to you?


[Pictures: Magic People, linoleum cut by Elizabeth Catlett, 2002 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

Innervisions 2 (Unfurling), relief block print by Deborah Grayson (Image from GraysonStudios.com);

Liberty, linoleum block print by Peter Paul Piech, 1971 (Image from V&A).]

June 15, 2022

Fantasy Botany

         This week I’ve finally been giving my garden some attention, so it seems a good time to share a bit of fantastical botany.  I have to start with the classics, which of course may or may not have been considered fantasy at the time.  The most famous is probably the mandrake, which is a a real plant, but had many fantastical properties attributed to it.  The root was said to be shaped like a person, and to shriek aloud when uprooted.  This scream could kill the hearer, but it was worth it to try to obtain the root because it could be used in love potions and flying ointments, as well as other magical brews.
        There’s a long history of fascination with plants that blur the line with animals, and I’ve featured a number in prior posts including: the vegetable lambs
        Alice encountered a garden of sentient flowers Through the Looking Glass, but really, they were so rude they were hardly worth knowing.  Consider instead how much fun illustrators have had with the nursery rhyme 
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells, and little maids all in a row.
One need not necessarily interpret this to mean that the bells, shells, and maids were actually growing in the garden as plants, but it’s so much fun to illustrate them that way that there are many illustrations turning contrary Mary’s garden into a small fantasy world.
        Another place to find fantastical plants is the Voynich manuscript.  I’ve written before about this mysterious cipher manuscript, which dates to the fifteenth century and includes illustrations of plants most of which are not quite identifiable, and many of which seem to be entirely made up.
        A strange book that may have been inspired at least in part by the Voynich manuscript is the Codex Seraphinianus, made by Italian artist Luigi Serafini between 1976-1978.  It is in the form of an encyclopedia of a strange world, full of surreal and fantastical illustrations, and it is written entirely in a meaningless script.  The first chapter is on plants.  The illustrations are 
bright, detailed, sometimes grotesque or disturbing, but often beautiful and delightfully quirky.  Because of the indecipherable text, it’s impossible to know what any of these plants are called, or exactly what properties may be attributed to them.
        The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, on the other hand, is a similar sort of encyclopedia of an imaginary world, but it’s written in English, so you get to learn fun facts about the marvelous illustrations, such as knowing that the cross-section of the chocolate tree depicts its delicious peppermint center.  This book includes all manner of fantastical creatures and things, but is especially rich in marvelous trees.
        I’m not going into too much depth in this post because Fantasy Botany is on my list of possible future A to Z themes, so I need to save up.  On the other hand, that’s no reason not to give plants a little attention in the meantime.  So, how does my garden grow?  With golden tomatoes, and tasty herbs, and pretty rudbeckia scattered all over the place.  What would you like to grow in your fantasy garden?


[Pictures: Mandrake, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Image from Internet Archive);

My Lady’s Garden, 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);

Mary, Mary, illustration (possibly by Howard Del?) from Mother Goose’s Melodies for her Little Goslings, 1881 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);

Two plants from Voynich Manuscript, c 1401-1599 (Image from Yale University Library);

Illustrations from Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini, 1981;

Illustration from The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, 2012.]

June 10, 2022

Shining the Light through Block Prints

         I recently got a chance to look around Yale University’s beautiful Humanities Quadrangle building (formerly known as the Hall of Graduate Studies, built in 1932), and I suddenly recognized an old friend.  No, not one of my classmates at the reunion, but Jost Amman, the sixteenth century wood block artist and carver.  I’ve featured Amman’s self-portrait on this blog (as well as a number of his other pieces), and there he was on a stained glass window with the light coming through.  Further exploration revealed that many (if not all) of the windows were decorated with reproductions of wood block prints.  What fun to recognize some, and to meet new friends!
        The original wood block print from which this next window was adapted dates to 1493, and presumably was chosen because it depicts a theater, coming from a book of plays.  It’s a fantastic image with lots of great details, like the crowded audience and more people coming up the steps, and the elaborately decorated pillars and other architecture.  However, somewhere along the line someone decided to censor the label on the scroll above the ground floor - which was probably the right choice on a college campus, since the original block print says “Fornices,” revealing that the ground floor
 is a brothel.  Apparently a draftsman in the office of the building’s architect (James Gamble Rogers) picked for inclusion in the architecture the opening line of the 1921 popular 
novel Scaramouche, thinking it a bit of a prank to feature something so distinctly unscholarly.  Perhaps the artist of this window was following the same impulse!
        I was able to trace the ship back to a 1502 edition of a book of maritime law.  I like how the artist of the window has used a bit of license in changing the pattern in the sky, as well as completing the edges of the ship.
        The designers of the Yale buildings were presumably trying to represent a range of arts and sciences in their decor, and for the more modern steam engine they had to find a more recent image.  This window depicts a locomotive built in 1804 by Richard Trevithick.  It was the first locomotive to successfully run on rails, and was the grand kick-off of the age of trains.  This wood engraving of it comes from a book published in 1900.  Once again the stained glass artist has exercised artistry of his or her own in cropping the composition and adding a background glorifying the magnificent power of the steam engine.  This appeals to all my steampunk sensibilities.
        Finally, I include this Pegasus because I thought it made a wonderful motif on the window, however, I was unable to track down the original on which it was based.
        Ever since I was a child I have been a huge fan of Collegiate Gothic architecture (which should probably more accurately be called “collegiate Elizabethan,” but I’m not a historian of architecture, so I won’t quibble.)  And perhaps no one does it better than Yale!  The level of care that went into every detail of this building is spectacular.  You can also revisit a prior post featuring some of the stone creatures that decorate Yale buildings (including the griffin that decorates the heading of this very blog).
       I always like to say that making relief block prints is carving light into darkness, but how much more wonderful is that light when it’s really shining through in the form of windows!


[Pictures: Stained glass from Yale’s Humanities Quadrangle, 1932 (photos by AEGN, 2022);

Der Formschneider, wood block print by Jost Amman from Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden, 1568 (Image from Yale University Library);

Theatrum, wood block print from Comoediae by Terence, 1493 (Image from National Gallery of Art);

Title Page, wood block print from Libre de consolat tractant dels fets maritims, 1502 (Image from Sotheby’s);

Trevithick’s Locomotive, wood engraving (by H.W. Benno?) from The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century by Edward W. Byrn, 1900 (Image from Internet Archive).]

June 6, 2022

Picasso Poster

         This poster is an interesting example of Picasso’s work in a very casual mode.  Picasso (Spain, 1881-1973) was hardly a stick-in-the-mud when it came to art, but it’s interesting to see what he made when he clearly wasn’t even trying very hard!  Picasso collaborated for many years with Hidalgo Arnéra, a printer, and one of the things they mostly produced was posters for bullfights and other local events.  This poster is for the annual ceramic festival of Vallauris, in 1956.  It’s got very basic carving, simple images, and Picasso even carved the 6 backwards.  Clearly he didn’t put a lot of effort into this one.  On the other hand, it was with Arnéra that Picasso developed his reduction print methods for printing multi-colored pieces with only one block (another way to keep it quick and cheap?)
        So, what’s going on here?  The carving is very basic, and (given the backwards 6) probably not even sketched out in advance.  It makes me wonder whether mushing together the double L in Vallauris was a design choice or a way to correct the spacing after starting in carving without a plan!  What is complicated, though, is the layering of colors.  It looks to me like the right and bottom sections of the paper were colored with blue, while the top, left and bottom sections of the paper were colored with yellow (making green across the bottom).  The center was left unprinted at first.  If the carved block was then printed over these colors in magenta, the yellow, white, blue, and green show through where the block was carved, while magenta over yellow makes red, magenta over blue makes purple, and magenta over green makes blackish.  The one thing I'm not sure of is how the words across the top got to be orange, so I'm probably missing some step.  
        To get to the most basic level about this piece, I’m really not at all excited about it as a work of art.  By all means see this prior post about one of Picasso’s prints that I am excited about!  But as one of the pieces demonstrating experiments with relief printing and the development of new ways for relief printmaking to be used, I find it fascinating.
        What do you think?


[Picture: Exposition Vallauris, linocut by Pablo Picasso, printed by Imprimetie Arnéra, 1956 (Image from AEGN, at the National Gallery of Scotland).]

June 1, 2022

Eisenman's People

         At the Yale Art Gallery last weekend, keeping my eyes open, as always, for relief block prints, I saw this piece by Nicole Eisenman.  The title of the piece seemed particularly fun: “Drippy Cloud Guy.”  However, a closer look reveals that the piece is officially Untitled, and a little research once I returned home revealed that most if not all of Eisenman’s prints are untitled.  Here are a few other things I learned.
        Nicole Eisenman (USA, b.1965) has received pretty much every possible big-name award including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “genius award.”  She seems to have made a slew of prints, including wood block prints and a number of other printmaking techniques, in 2012.  (She is gender fluid and uses both she and they pronouns.)  I also discovered in the course of 
my quick research that, honestly, I am not much of a fan of most of her work.  I did, however, find these
 wood block prints that I wanted to share.
        To begin with the “drippy cloud guy,” I’m definitely tickled by the idea of lying on one’s back in the grass and drawing the raining clouds above.  Given Eisenman’s other work, I wouldn’t be surprised if this man is seeing the clouds as breasts and sketching accordingly, which probably Means Something.  Still, there’s a whimsy that appeals to me.
        The second piece definitely has whimsey, as a person and a bird give each other a peck (pun intended).  For some reason they both look quite surprised.  The skritches and 
scratches of texture add interest, especially combined with
 the color, which looks as if it’s probably painted in the background.
        The third person is quite intense, white eyes staring out of the red shadow.  The wood grain plays an important role, as does the gradation in the inking.
        And finally, another more whimsical person.  His eyes are pointing every-which-way like a cartoon, and although everything else is very simple, his ears have a beautifully detailed texture of fine arcs.  A colored background and variegated inking add a little dimensionality.  And most importantly, he has a friendly smile.




[Pictures: Untitled (Drippy Cloud Guy), woodcut by Nicole Eisenman, 2012 (Image taken by AEGN at Yale University Art Gallery);
Untitled, woodcut by Eisenman, 2012;
Untitled, woodcut by Eisenman, 2012 (Images from Koenig & Clinton);
Untitled (for Parkett 91), woodcut by Eisenman, 2012 (Image from Parkett).]