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Most painters find a particular subject and they stick with it their whole life. The themes which dominate an artist’s oeuvre can be all sorts of things: doomed warriors, Christ’s love, dark beauty, prime numbers, death-in-life, imperious aristocrats,monstrous pride, melancholy flowers, unruly goddesses…you name it. In the case of Adolf Lins the great subject to which he devoted his life work was…well, it was domestic poultry. Lins was truly great at painting ducks, geese, and chickens. He demonstrates that maybe not every artist has to concentrate on the ineluctable nature of time or the chasm between desire and reality. His poultry paintings are still well loved (although he is not the subject of long biographies like many of his peers).
Lins studied at the Academy of Arts in Kassel. He later followed some fellow artists to Düsseldorf where it seems he fell in love with the gentle agrarian rhythms of the fertile farms by the Rhine. He lived from 1856 to 1927–and though Germany changed again and again in that time, he kept his eyes on the modest glory of the local ponds and fields.
Lins had a talent for painting verdant Rhine foliage and glittering pools. He was also proficient at painting apple-cheeked farm children and lissome goose-girls, but his real skills and interests lay in the depiction of the individual fowl which are the focal points of his paintings. Each bird has its own personality and is busied with its own pursuits. Cantankerous geese squawk and bicker about flock politics (while other disinterested geese preen themselves or nap). Mallards in a forest pool gather around a white domestic duck with a lambent yellow bill. Two roosters fluff out their feathers and lower their heads as they prepare to battle to the death for possession of the flock behind them. Lins’ works may not concern the massive ebb and flow of historical or philosophical concerns in the human world, but he deftly captures the very real struggles and delights of the lives of domesticated farm birds. The feathers and mud and beaks seem real–and so does the liveliness of flock life a century ago. Any contemporary poultry farmer can instantly recognize what is going on in a Lins painting and share a quiet smile with small stock owners across the gulf of time.
Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week. At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online. I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?). Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle. Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.
Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common. In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos! Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts. I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art? Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness? The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).
Whatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive. Thanks to the brave souls who wear them. Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers: I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!
I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last! A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday. To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper). Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art. Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).
People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved. Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side. The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success. Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!
It has been a long time since we had a garden post here. In order to make the time pass more quickly until spring arrives and we have real flower gardening, here are some pictures of various beautiful sculpture gardens scattered across North America and Europe. They make we want to add some sculptures to my own backyard garden (which has a sphinx and a fu dog). Does anybody know where I could get a Janus statue and maybe some lamassus? Perhaps it’s time I broke out of this torpor and just carved a bunch of crazy mystical animals! Anyway enjoy the sculpture gardens…
One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork. Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages. Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level. Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind. Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears. This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts. After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).
Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience. The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream. Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website. In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper, I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings). Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small. If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).
The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans. The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance. Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.
Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods. I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.
Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today). The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today. Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.
Here are three Chinese paintings of mallard ducks from 3 different eras. Coincidentally, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the quintessential success stories of animals alive today. It lives throughout Asia, Europe, North America, and North Africa (in addition to places where it has been introduced) and it was the ancestor to most domestic ducks. However we will leave an in-depth wild duck essay for later this year (seriously, they really are magnificent & fascinating animals) in order to appreciate these three watercolor on silk paintings.
The first (and greatest) comes from the Song dynasty which ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD. As mentioned earlier, the Song is regarded as a glorious apogee of Chinese art and poetry and the simple court painting of a duckling makes the reasons self-evident. The animal is foreshortened and painted with effortless naturalism.
The Second painting comes from the Yuan dynasty—the era of Mongol occupation. Although the duck is presented from the side as though diagramed, it still has a charming naturalism. Additionally the bird has an amusingly insouciant look. His magnificently rendered plumage and feet also serve to give him character while the autumn vines in the background further serve to give the painting piquancy.
Finally we have a lovingly rendered contemporary painting. Even though it is separated from the others by nearly a millennium, the brushwork is similar. The feathers have been painted with swift sure strokes. The background though vibrantly colored has been sketched in to suggest a landscape (rather then rendered in detail. Although and there is a touch more photorealism in the duck’s plumage there is also a touch less charisma and personality in the ducks’ faces.
Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River. He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery. Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning. Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years). He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation. During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle. He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).
The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans). His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones . Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces. The colors and patterns themselves are at war. Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat. The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered. The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.
Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes. Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well. Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.
I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.
Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden. The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art. A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago. In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree. Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids. Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper. Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate). The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).
As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning. Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.