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This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor. Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light. They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow. In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue. If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows. At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.
Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.
Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore. Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.
Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead. Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous. If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).
Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday items. The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.
Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests. Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time. Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.
Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams. But leprechauns have a darker side as well. The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.
Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland. The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.
Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind. Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard. However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares. Do you doubt me gentle reader? Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!
Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that. It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories. These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires. Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.
Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can. Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust. May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.
In an earlier post I wrote about exquisite tiny gothic revival cottages. There is of course a different side to the gothic home—giant gothic houses. In the continuing spirit of Halloween and haunted houses, here is a gallery of large beautiful creepy gothic residences. Wherever possible I have tried to give their name and location, but evidently there are more big gothic mansions than can be easily kept track of. Just imagine these beautiful houses in the moonlight with a few half-seen figures lurking behind the curtains (and maybe a shaggy shape or two looming behind the topiaries) and you will soon be in a perfect mood for October.
In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture). Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.
Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes. Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether). By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence. He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War. Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch. Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.
Friedrich came back to this theme again and again. Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald. The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees. The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation. Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness. Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.
I love fountains and my home, New York City, is an excellent place to witness all manner of lovely ornamental waterworks. No doubt other bloggers have extolled Manhattan’s many famous fountains, so I thought I would briefly write about my favorite fountain in Brooklyn, the Bailey Fountain, which is located at Grand Army Plaza at the north end of Prospect Park. The fountain lies beyond the huge triumphal arch which celebrates the victorious conclusion of the American Civil War. Both fountain and arch lie on a traffic island surrounded at all times by dangerous rivers of vehicles.
The Bailey Fountain was conceived of during the late nineteen twenties but it was built in 1932. The tension between these two very different eras is noticeable in the ferocity and severity of the classical figures. The fountain seems to be an allegory of abundance however the individual figures look like they instead portray greed, abandon, and resignation. The fountain is the work of architect Edgerton Swarthout and the bronze sculptures were crafted by Eugene Savage. I think the final work might transcend what either had initially intended.
Bailey fountain portrays a pair of magnificent bronze nudes standing on the deck of a ship. The two respectively represent wisdom and felicity. I assume the man is wisdom and the woman is felicity, but it is not easy to tell because she does not look happy and he does not look wise. Although they both look powerful the figures seem wan and resigned. Additionally, although they are connected, their backs are forever turned to each other. A bestial Neptune sprawls on the prow as grim Tritons sound horns and writhe on both sides of the boat. Strange frog and fish faces spew white water around the tormented figures. The boat and its inhabitants represent humankind and the figures in the water represent chance and the forces of nature. When contemplating the fountain it is easy to pitch your mind back to the time of the great depression and see Neptune and his fierce watery compatriots as the unquenchable appetite and greed which spawned the many hardships of that era.
The Bailey fountain replaced a bizarre Victorian electric water show which was the rainbow-colored high-pressured wonder of its time (but which did not hold up well since it combined early electrical technology, 19th century plumbing, and Brooklyn winters). I first saw the Bailey fountain in the mid-nineties when it was broken and dry: large portions of the work were painted the same aqua blue as swimming pools. The plaza seemed deserted except for the eternal traffic, the sinister vine covered trees, and a huge tribe of rats. Great hunks of granite pavement had been broken apart by frost heave (or some other urban force) and melancholy pervaded the scene. A lone homeless person sidled up and sadly informed me that the fountain was haunted and, in the lugubrious twilight, I half believed him. Today, however, the fountain has been restored, and you can contemplate its enigmatic meaning in a much more pleasant surrounding.