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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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I have conflicted feelings about Ai Weiwei (arguably China’s most renowned contemporary artist). On one hand his work can be undeniably powerful. He and I went to the same art school (The dear old Art Students’ League of New York) and he is fearless: it takes true courage to stand as a gadfly to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. Yet, on the other hand, his work partakes obsessively of Warhol’s solipsistic narcissism. Ai exemplifies the toxic studio system which has erased handicraft mastery from art (although, arguably, that very point is a big part of his work) and he has so blurred the lines between art and politics that I wonder if he is not a Chinese politician rather than a Chinese artist. I realize as I write this, that all of these “counter” points could be construed in his favor (and they are certainly the larger part of the reason he has found such immense international success). So my ambiguous feelings about Ai Weiwei probably have to do with my ambiguous feelings about art and politics: which are twin disciplines in a way which is not readily apparent at first. We will explore that kinship and tension later this year as we ask what the purpose of art is anyway (and what the purpose of politics is too—other than to aggrandize a bunch of hypocritical elites).
But, for today, I want to uncritically praise Ai Weiwei because I love the new series he has produced.
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Longtime readers know my love of Chinese porcelain—especially the justly famous cobalt glaze blue-and-white ware which was created in the Yuan Dynasty but flowered into its greatest glory during the Ming Dynasty. Ai Weiwei has used the techniques and style of Ming blue-and-white porcelain to produce a majestic series which exemplifies timeless beauty of the form yet with fully contemporary subjects. The resulting pieces are masterworks. They underline tricky questions about China, art, power, individuals, society, and coercion throughout the ages.
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Naturally they are produced by unknown artisans whom Ai Weiwei enslaved and exploited. But that dynamic also undergirded original Ming ceramic masterpieces (which were made by unknown artisans). Additionally, everything is made that way today. Look around your computer (and AT your computer) unless you are reading this in the far future or are an eccentric potentate, it was all made in a Chinese sweatshop. And the work, with its themes of refugees, escape, conflict, and striving, has a pathos and a human element absent from the courtly dragons, serene pine, and magical peaches of the originals.
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It is amazing stuff. Maybe he can redeem himself in my eyes for smashing a Han urn as a publicity stunt (although I am sure that where he is now laughing atop a pile of money as art curators genuflect before him, my good esteem may not be at the forefront of his concerns)

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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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What with the holiday crush and the end of the year, I have had less time than I would like for blogging, but I will put up some Christmas posts and year-end thoughts here in the coming days.  For now, here is an illuminated page of William Blake’s 1794 volume “Europe a Prophecy,” a dense symbolic poem about the benighted state of Europe (and humankind) at the end of the 18th century.  I won’t get into the text but suffice it to say the magnificent crowned serpent seems to hold unusual sway over the affairs of men.

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Hold everything! Today is the day when Pantone announces their trademarked “Color of the Year” for 2018. To quickly recap, Pantone is a private color-consulting company which helps consumer-facing firms select yearly color palates which work together at the store.  When you go to a mall (kids, this was a large building containing many individual different retail stores) and see that all of the clothes and gadgets are the same colors, Pantone is behind the convergence. They chose a real winner last year—a magnificent mid-tone green that looked like it came straight from the idealized cabbage patches of some fantasy “old country” (but also simultaneously seemed to reference money and environmentalism).  Can this year continue the trend or will we face another perplexing chicken-liver year (or the wishy-washy dichotomy of election year 2016 when we were presented with two opposite gendered tones)?  Without further ado, the Pantone Color of 2018 is…“Ultra violet” a bold rich purple! (maybe you already guessed based on the bar of pure purple above).

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I love this color.  Purple is one of my favorite colors (it might be my favorite) and this tone evokes the best things about purple!  It reminds me of a medieval king’s tunic or a spooky Queen Anne house in a Halloween poster.  Kudos to Pantone for the solid choice.  We will say nothing of Grimace and the shadow his amorphous purple form has cast over a generation of culture mavens and style moguls.

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For its part, Pantone seems to be making a quiet and uncontroversial political statement with its selection. The executive director of the Pantone color institute spells this out in her pronouncement: “It’s also the most complex of all colors, because it takes two shades that are seemingly diametrically opposed — blue and red — and brings them together to create something new.”  The company’s literature further emphasizes purple’s mystical and cosmic connotations…and how dear it was to beloved yet lost entertainment icons like Jim Bowie and Prince.

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Pantone also claims that “ultraviolet” evokes an idealized future (which makes me wonder if they have read “A Clockwork Orange”).  Maybe they are subconsciously projecting the preferences of a highly networked consulting company of global influence since  Ultraviolet is a purple which definitely leans towards blue. It’s fun to reminisce about all of the beloved icons and styles from the past and to make metaphors out of color, yet the colors of the year really do reflect larger patterns and trends. When the economy is doing well, Pantone executives and art-directors feel free to choose more bold and colorful choices.  These become increasingly extravagant until a recession comes along—when they all get reset to monotones, dust-colors, and similarly basic palate choices.  Ultraviolet is clearly leaning towards the more flamboyant side (I seem to recall a similar dot-com purlple back in the nineties just before the bubble burst.  This bold purple reminds us to look towards a brighter future and to enjoy the sugar rush, but it makes me wonder if there aren’t some grays and beiges in the immediate future.

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Ferrebeekeeper’s love of gardens is well known, but there is an aspect of gardens which I love nearly as much as the gardens themselves.  Yet they are not really plants or gardens.  They can be found beyond the garden in public squares or in the center of deserts…in preschools or in abandoned palaces.  I am speaking, of course, of fountains and I intend to put a lot more images of ornamental water features on this blog.  To start with I am featuring this ornate geometric tree fountain from an unknown location in Morocco.  I guess if I had a fountain I would want a baroque fountain with lots of river gods and naked nymphs and ogee shapes…but the Islamic conception of sumptuously tiled fountains with beautiful arabesque curves made of filigree might be just as elegant.  I will post more pictures of these treasures…and I also need to write about the Lote Tree (I have a suspicion the tree in this fountain might allude to it (but who can say).  There is more to follow!  Thanks for bearing with me.  Sometimes the fountain is a rivulet and sometimes it is a mighty torrent but it is always flowing.

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It has been a while since I posted any of my flounder drawings on this blog, but don’t worry, ever since my art show back in August I have been working as harder than ever at drawing and sculpting allegorical flatfish.  Indeed, I am working on a new show with some spectacular projects…but more about that later.  For right now here are two small fish drawings.  The first, above, is titled “Haywain Flatfish” and is meant to evoke the splendor of harvest season.  A bewhiskered yokel carries off a sack of millet as the pumpkins ripen in the golden fields.  An industrious beaver has been similarly productive and sits beaming beside his perfectly constructed dam.  Although the scene conveys bucolic tranquility, the hollow black eyes of the fulsome flounder (and the circling vulture) speak of the coming austerity and darkness of winter.

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This second image “AlienHeartSole” shows a flounder/sole with what looks like a big-hearted alien tentacle monster flying upon it in a personalized saucer.  Although the alien seems benign, the imbecilic sphinx with a javelin, the bomb, and the tattered angel throwing a dart all suggest that this is an amoral and perplexing galaxy.  Only the laid-back rooster offers a modicum of sanguine confidence…and it is unclear whether the gormless bird understands what is going on.  If you enjoy these little tragi-comic images, you should follow me on Instagram (where Ferrebeekeeper goes by the sobriquet “GreatFlounder”).  There you will find a great trove of colorful and enigmatic flatfish art.  As part of the project which I mentioned above, I am trying to bring my various digital /web content into a more tightly networked gestalt, so I would be super appreciative for any Instagram follows!

 

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Childeric was a Frankish king who was born in the middle of the 5th century AD and lived to around 480 AD.  He was the son of Merovech (after whom the Merovingians were named) and the father of Clovis I who united the Franks and was thus arguably the first king of France. Childeric has an interesting life with lots of weird seductions and thrilling battles against the Goths, however these cinematic aspects of his career scarcely concern us here… instead we are talking about the tomb of Childeric which was discovered in 1653 in what is today Belgium. The 12th-century church of Saint-Brice in Tournai was built close to Childeric’s grave (although who knows if this was by design or by accident?). Childeric’s grave was filled with rich treasures of 5th century Frankish craft, which were given first to the Hapsburgs who presented the find to Louis IVX (who, as the apogee of absolutist monarchs, was somewhat unimpressed with the pieces and kept them in his library rather than his vault).

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The treasure of Childeric’s tomb included a golden bull, some coins, a signet ring, and other such precious odds and ends.  The real highlight of the collection however were 300 golden insects inlaid with garnets (these mysterious jeweled bugs were most commonly regarded as bees) which were sewed onto the monarch’s grave cloak.  These bees inspired the bees of Napoleon (who was looking for insignia which was symbolic of France but which was not the fleur-de-lis of the Bourbons).  Unfortunately, the vast majority of Childeric’s bees were stolen and melted down during a break-in during 1831.  Only two of the splendid red and gold bees remain.  Fortunately we still have the engravings which were commissioned by Leopold William, governor of the Austrian Netherlands (the aristocrat to whom the treasures of Childeric’s grave were first presented).

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Well, it’s past Halloween, but maybe there is still time for one more snake monster.  In Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the rooster.  English mythology features a monster which is half-snake and half-rooster:  the fearsome cockatrice.  The cockatrice had the head and torso of a chicken, but with dragonlike wings and a long sinuous serpent tail. It is sometimes conflated with the basilisk (although I think of them as different as, no doubt, do other Harry Potter fans). Various stories describe the cockatrice as being enormously venomous.

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The cockatrice was invented at the end of the 14th century and it experienced an enormous bloom of popularity in the England of the Tudors.  Cockatrices were everywhere.  they crawled all of over heraldry and pub signs.  They were in work of Spenser and Shakespeare. They even crawled/flapped their way into the Bible as the enthusiastic King James translators put the newly-designed creature into the book of Isaiah for the Hebrew “tsepha” (which as far as contemporary scholars can tell was a very venomous fossorial creature, probably a viper).

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Why did the Elizabethans love the cockatrice so much?  Well they were very poetic and imaginative people (if we take Spenser and Shakespeare as typical Elizabethans—and they are certainly the Elizabethans whom I am most familiar with).  Additionally the style of the time was marked by proud swagger and poisonous disputes which stemmed from the great religious disputes of the time where everyone was trying to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant and whether virtue and/or political advantage lay with one or the other.  The mixed-up, chicken-brained, noisy, poisonous, beautiful, deadly cockatrice was a perfect mascot for such a time.  Indeed, it may need to become make a comeback for our own time!

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Happy Halloween! I am celebrating by taking the day off and presenting nothing other than a gallery of amazing old prints of epic snake monsters!  Be sssssafe and have fun!

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