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9,000 year old Neolithic limestone mask found in the Judean desert

We are coming up to Halloween and, as always, we will have a special week of horrifying posts concerning a theme topic (like flaying, the undead, or the monstrous brood of Echidna).  Before we get there, though, let’s take a peak back through time to look at some of the other faces that our forbears decided to put on in the ages before “Joker” or “It”.  The greatest masks are astonishing sculptures, but they were more, too–masks lay at the crux of ancient cults and ancient drama.  We will never truly know what the makers of that first mask up there were doing with it 9000 years ago (human sacrifice?), nor will we know what the Etruscans wanted with their Charun-like mask (human sacrifice?).  We truly can’t know what the mysterious Moche wanted with their mostrous mask (human sacrifice?), and sadly, I couldn’t find out about the Bornean & Congolese masks.  Yet on a deeper level we do know: our hearts tell us what each of these masks is about as surely as we can read a line of emoticons on a phone or know to jump away from a striking cobra.  Some things are instinctual even for humans.  Although I am sure an ethnologist would chide me, it is hard not to look through the empty eyes of masks, both sacred and profane, and see the familiar dark places always within the human heart.

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Borneo Mask Indai-Guru Mask Borneo, Iban Dayak

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Kumu Mask: Congo/Central Africa

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Etruscan mask in Archeology Museum in Cagliari.

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Moche Mask, Peru, 6th-7th century AD, Silvered copper, shell

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Today we present a seasonally appropriate earthtone blast from the past–a color which was once everywhere and is now nowhere at all.  I am talking about the go-to kitchen appliance color of the 1970s, “harvest gold” a sort of warm brownish golden ochre.  I remember seeing so many refrigerators, ovens, sinks, and toilets that were this color when I was a child that I sort of thought it was some fundamental feature of home fixtures.  Of course, harvest gold, wasn’t just in the kitchen and then the bathroom, all sorts of other items of fundamental importance to society came in this same shade–turtlenecks, shag carpet, macrame, Dodge Darts, hotpants…you name it (this is to say nothing of things which were, are, and always will be this deep yellow like dead corn fields, lions, broken urinals, used cigarette filters, and mustard, mustard, MUSTARD!).  More than rust brown, tangerine orange, or even avocado, this was the trademark color of the seventies.

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Now, if you had asked me about this color in the 80s, 90s, 00s, or even the early teens, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it is a hideous afront to civilized ideals of beauty and then made some rude remarks about malaise, mustard, and moustaches.  But is that really true?

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Like all earth hues, this dark yellow suffers because there are lots of earthy things which have the same color, but, likewise there are many beautiful living things that are harvest gold (maybe you noticed lions hiding in the comic list in the first paragraph).  There are famously beautiful people who have hair this color. Maize and wheat are both this color (it’s called harvest gold for a reason) as is the element gold which is known to have a certain cachet.

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So if there was nothing inherent to the seventies or harvest gold which brought the two together, what happened? What forces caused this color to become so famous for a decade and then so infamous for decades?  I would argue that it was marketers trying to sell things to people that made it famous.  It was people copying other people that made the color super famous and then it was everyone overreacting to that overreaction which made the color infamous and toxic.  This is a troubling cycle because it doesn’t just apply to harvest gold, it kind of applies to everything that people get really involved with.  It makes you wonder which of the things that are everywhere around us right now are harvest gold.  Where will they be in 40 years?

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As our republic shakes apart from corruption, incompetence, cowardice, and naked lust for power, I keep thinking about Gaius Sallustius Crispus AKA Sallust, a Roman politician who lived through the fall of the Republic.  Although classicists rhapsodize about Sallust’s political (and stylistic) foe, Cicero, I am no Latin grammar expert. I studied history!  So Sallust, the moralizing historian, interests me more than Cicero, the supremely self-satisfied orator.  Although not famed for his annoying aphorisms, Sallust could certainly turn a phrase himself.  My favorite zinger from him is this jewel: “Those most moved to tears by every word of a preacher are generally weak and a rascal when the feelings evaporate.”

At any rate Sallust was a populare…which is to say that, although he was born in an aristocratic family, he sought the support (and broadly advocated for the welfare) of the plebiscite.  As a youth, Sallust was a famous sybarite known for excesses of sensual depravity, but he became infamously moral and censorious later in life.  This strikes me as humorous on many levels, but particularly because the high point of his political career was his term as governor of Africa Nova (what is today the coastal portion of Algeria and parts of Morocco and Tunisia).  To quote Wikipedia “As governor he committed such oppression and extortion that only Caesar’s influence enabled him to escape condemnation.”  Hahahaha…so much for all of that talk of ascetic virtue and the excesses of aristocracy.

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At any rate, what really interests me about Sallust is what he did with the stolen wealth of North Africa…which he used to build a timelessly famous garden in northeast Rome between the Pincian and Quirinal hills.  The Horti Sallustiani “Gardens of Sallust” contained a temple to Venus, a vast portico, and an array of beautiful and famous sculptures–some of which have survived or been unearthed and are among the finest examples of Roman art.  Here is a little gallery of the most famous pieces.  As you can immediately see, they have had an enormous impact on western sculpture.

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“The Dying Gaul”(A Roman copy of the lost Greek original)

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“The Borghese Vase” excavated from the site of the gardens of Sallust in 1566. Napoleon bought it from his brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in 1808

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The Ludovisi Throne, an enormous chair of contested origin which was discovered at the site of the Gardens of Sallust in 1887

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An aulos player on the wing of the Ludovisi Throne

The Gardens of Sallust passed to the author’s grand nephew and then became the property of the Roman emperors who kept them opened as a public amenity and added many features across a span of four centuries!  Even today, some of the original buildings and features are still extant.

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After four centuries, the gardens enter history one more time–or history entered them.  When the Goths sacked Rome it was still walled and heavily defended.  Alaric’s men laid siege to the eternal city three times.  The first two times, they were rebuffed by walls, defenders, and shrewd political guile, but the third time they gained access to the city through the Salarian Gate…which opened into the Horti Sallustiani.  Imagine the barbarians among the mausoleums, sarcophagi, and funereal urns outside the city, and then, by treachery or by Germanic ingenuity somehow, after 800 years they were within Rome itself among the pleasure pavilions and flowers and ornamental trees of the Gardens of Sallust.

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Here is one of those peculiar stories about a crown which exemplifies why crowns are interesting in the first place.  Back in 1998, Sirak Asfaw, a Dutch civil servant (who was born in Ethiopia but fled to the Netherlands in the 1970s) was hosting a houseguest from Ethiopia.  The mysterious guest had an even more mysterious case which seemed to contain a shimmering gold object.  In accordance with fairy tale rules, Asfaw opened up the case and discovered a glittering golden crown inside.

Well…actually the crown was made of some lesser metal covered with gilding.  Asfaw cast the houseguest out of his home and has been hiding the stolen crown there for the past 21 years.  Based on the crown’s shape and on the saints and religious figures which adorn it, the piece is a liturgical crown used in Orthodox Christian ceremonies. A Dutch investigator found a picture of the crown (below) being worn by a prelate back in 1993. Apparently the headress originated the village of Cheleqot, 75 miles from the border with Eritrea, but was stolen in the mid to late nineties.

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Now that the crown has resurfaced, it is heading back to Ethiopia, but it is unclear if it will go the national museum or to a private owner.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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