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Kombu (Laminaria japonica) is a sort of edible brown algae. This kelp grows from 2 to 5 meters long (6 to 15 feet) but in perfect conditions it can grow to be 10 meters (30 feet) in length. Kombu is native to the coasts of Japan and it has been eaten there since the Jōmon era (a prehistoric era when Japan was inhabited by hunter-gatherers). The seaweed is famous for its rich umami flavor and it is nutritionally valuable as a source of protein, fat, fiber, and minerals.
During the 1920s, Kombu was exported to China where it is known as Haidai—it is particularly popular in northern China (where green vegetables are scarce in winter). The seaweed has also been traded extensively to Korea.
Kombu was originally harvested wild from cold rich coastal ocean waters where it attaches to sub-littoral rocks but the 2 year growing season was frustrating to consumers. Today Kombu is grown in immense industrial scale on aquaculture plantations around China, Korea, and Japan. Brown algae cultivation involves sophisticated manipulation of alternation of generations (the metagenetic reproductive cycle of plants).
There is a dark chartreuse (yellow-green) color, Kombu green which takes its name from the beloved kelp.
The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters. Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California. At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters. His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).
The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children. The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration. As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood. Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.
Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over. The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare. The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.
Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols. The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades. Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance
On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion. Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death). The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.
In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era. Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy. Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity. Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.
Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints. The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles. Everything else, however points to their humanity. The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism). Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it. The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden. Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.
A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance. In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade. Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting. They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze. The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia. The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity. Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.
During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras. One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.
The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:
Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld. He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance. The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak. A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity. Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)
Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans. When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.
Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse. The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy. The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses. The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead. No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion. The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.
Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath. She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved. The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.
Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities. Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship. There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”. Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.