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What a long week! What with mad bombers and North Korea and taxes and sexy exes and goodness knows what else, I am totally ready to phone in today’s blog post. Fortunately I have the ideal solution for a quick but fun post! This year I forgot to celebrate Ferrebeekeeper’s 3rd anniversary. For our first year celebration I published a group of doodles. These are little drawings which I do at the Monday morning staff meeting at the beginning of every work week. This might sound well…sketchy, but I assure you doodling keeps me alert and allows me to remember what was said at each meeting. As you can see from the strange eclectic subjects, I think the whimsy and freedom of the weekend hasn’t quite worn off when I draw these. Sometimes, during my lunch break I color my little doodles in with highlighters or crayons. So here are 21 weeks’ worth of Monday morning staff meeting doodles. These little throw-away doodles open up a world into the subconscious where our true feelings about the universe can be found. Strangely these doodles reveal that I really like melting Middle Eastern cities of arabesques and angels (?). Less surprisingly I love fantasy beasts, gardens, fish, and mammals. I’m not sure why I love paisleys so much—maybe the sixties had a greater influence on me than I know (though I certainly wasn’t around back then).
My favorite is the little purple pleasure garden where a flamingo watches a phoenix fly away from the ruins of an alien robot (below), but I also like the bat and the geometric widget beast relaxing by a tree at sunset, as well as the underwater city of sharks and biomechanical walking buildings. Which ones do you like? Please leave a comment–I promise I’ll respond next week!
It’s been a while since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic post–so here is one of my favorite sculptural details from world famous Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of Paris. An intense bearded man with a hand axe is pursuing a cockatrice (a poisonous two-legged rooster-dragon) along the top of a wall. The cockatrice was reputed to have the ability to turn people to stone so the particular realism of the axeman takes on an added dimension–but the monster is frozen as well (as it has been for the long centuries).
Today Ferrebeekeeper travels far back in time across the long shadowy ages to the Western Zhou dynasty to feature this goose-shaped bronze zun (a ceremonial wine vessel). The Western Zhou dynasty lasted from 1046–771 BCE and was marked by the widespread use of iron tools and the evolution of Chinese script from its archaic to its modern form. Excavated in Lingyuan, Liaoning Province in 1955 this goose vessel is now held at the National Museum of China. I like the goose’s neutral expression and serrated bill!
One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space. Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects. Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.
Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist. His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery. The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects. Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.
The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”. The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death. Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.
The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world. The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements. Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity. Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above. A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer. Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea. Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points. A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.
Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in. The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery. Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter. From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy. He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time. Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals. Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners. These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.
In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness. Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards. In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance). Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness. Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society. A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage. A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag. This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together: there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.
Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad. As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars. Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus. The huge felines are one more the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].
There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well. He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter. In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum. Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.
In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair. Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete). The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence. Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon). My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone. The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading. When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.
Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture. Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.
In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil. The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.
Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world. Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image. The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.
One of my favorite mawkish songs is “Cockles and Mussels.” Not only is it a stirring melodramatic ballad concerning the sad death of a young Irishwoman, it is probably the only known song to feature ghost mollusks! Let’s review the lyrics:
In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
“Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh”,
Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”.
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!
That seems pretty clear—the cockles and mussels travel beyond the grave with Molly and her ghost is left trying to sell their spirits in the variously sized thoroughfares of Ireland’s capital (even to me, that sounds like a futile business plan—who is the projected customer base here?). The harrowing supernatural drama reminds me that I need to add posts about cockles (which are tiny edible saltwater clams found on sandy beaches worldwide) and mussels to Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category.
Beyond her working connection to the vast phylum of mollusks, her sweetness, and her death, little is known concerning Molly Malone. This is ironic since the longstanding international success of the song has made her an unofficial mascot of Dublin and a mainstay of tourism there. Various amateur historians have unsuccessfully tried to link the song with a historical personage to no avail. It seems the ditty was created from imagination by a Scottish balladeer late in the nineteenth century and it was first published in the 1880s in America!
However the paucity of information has not stopped artists from portraying Molly (as is evident from the pictures dotted through this post). Even if the song was an invention there is a real sense of futility, heartbreak and loss to it. And just think of the poor ghostly shellfish spending eternity being hawked in the in-between neverworld of Dublintown.
In October 2003 the city of Nashville Tennessee decided to celebrate National Catfish Month (August) by asking local artists and craftspeople to make 51 catfish sculptures which were positioned around the city. The sculptures went on display in June and were auctioned off in October. Sponsored by the Cumberland River Compact, Greenways for Nashville, and the Parthenon Patrons Foundation, the show was meant to raise awareness concerning water quality in the Cumberland River.
Catfish are a major theme here at Ferrebeekeeper and I am delighted at the extent to which “Catfish out of Water” captured the amazing variety and hardiness of the Siluriformes. The name even evokes the amazing ability of the walking catfish to survive out of water (although that formidable invasive fish has fortunately not made it to Tennessee). I have only put in photos of a tiny number of the original sculptures here in order to encourage you to visit the complete gallery of catfish sculptures lovingly photographed by Jan Duke and carefully displayed and enumerated at About.com.
Hooray for catfish! May the Cumberland River always run clean and pure (except maybe for some tasty rotting food scraps for the bewhiskered critters to snack on).