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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists). Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history. One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty. The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red). These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago: laying out fine clothes and setting the table. One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch. The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.
The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries. Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”). Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires. The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea. To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument. But look at these amazing paintings! Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.
The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right. The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life. Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines. If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.
These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.
Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive. We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend). We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky. I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…
Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish? Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked. There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts. There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ). But there is an entirely different myth too.
Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp. Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music. His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood. But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.
Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall. He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.
Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back. First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably. This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying. The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus! Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.
The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too. Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp. I wonder what it will look like in the future?
For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto! However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday. Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise. Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).
Let’s talk about princesses! In the toy industry where I used to work, emphasizing princesses is a way to sell pink plastic drek directly to little girls–and it works really well for that! So much so that a lot of the world’s best entertainment and toy properties are princesses. Yet, I always thought the idea was poorly explored—both its roots and its ramifications. Walt Disney, Charles Perrault, and all of the world’s toy executives just sort of decided that half of the world should share the same alter-ego protagonist and everybody blandly agreed with them. And things have stood thus for multiple generations.
This week, Ferrebeekeeper is going to talk about princesses because the concept is so extraordinarily powerful that we should all think about it and learn from it. At its heart the idea of princesshood is an exquisite and complicated fantasy juxtaposition. A princess represents near absolute power…but so seamlessly wrapped in the trappings of compassion, courtesy, and elegant refinement that the power is virtually invisible. The concept is a socio-political fantasy about the very best way to interact with other people: imagine if almost everyone was your social subordinate (!), but you were really kind and generous to them to such an extent that they didn’t mind. I would totally want to live that way—as a powerful person so lovable that I never had to exert my power! It makes you wonder why boys would ever want to be vampires, Godzilla, or Han Solo (although each of those entities also sort of embodies the same fantasy of being powerful without lots of lawyers, contracts, hired goons, and painful calls about money).
If you listen to NPR and read the New Yorker or suchlike journals, you might recall the “death of men” concept which was en vogue just before the disastrous 2016 election. This idea posited that women are actually more adept at today’s society than men. Nobody is mining things or fighting lions or hosting WWI style events–venues where men allegedly excel (when not being crushed, eaten, or blown up). Whereas women have the sort of soft but firm power which big offices desperately crave. Women are going to university at higher rates than men and rising higher in a society which is based on voluminous rules and carefully crafted double talk.
Nobody has been talking about that “Death of Men” idea lately for some reason. However, reactionary national politics aside, I thought there was something to the idea. Success in today’s world is indeed about PR and plotting rather that discovery and daring. I wonder if princess stories and dolls have something to do with this.
In reality, princesses were not always so genteel or compassionate…nor were they necessarily powerful, in some instances they were closer to the misogynist ideal of a submissive beautiful brood mare in gorgeous gems and finery. And, additionally, a princess who really rules is not an idealized fantasy figure. Somehow queens remain resolutely distant and scary (if not outright crazy and malevolent).
Of course there is another darker side to this. Little girls aren’t really being sold on becoming actual princesses (who are always beheading people and tricking inbred nobles) instead they are sold on being like fairytale princesses who spend lots of money on appearances, luxury goods, and dreams, while always being safely polite and waiting for a prince to come sweep them off their feet. Snow White was so passive that it was a miracle she wasn’t eaten by rabbits! That terrifying evil queen would totally have cut out her heart in the real world!
At any rate it is obvious that the concept of princesshood is absolutely jam packed with all sorts of insane cultural context and we are selling this to whole generations of little girls (and others) who will grow up to inherit the world, not because we have examined or thought about it, but because it sells. Let’s examine some of those stories and myths with a fresh eye and see what we can learn. I was a big fan of the idea that power comes from goodness (which is the moral wellspring of these myths). Come to think of it, I still am a fan of that concept. Maybe by thinking about this we can reawaken the good princess in everyone else’s heart too.
Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter. It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry. The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.
I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful. The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power. Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages. However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration). The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)
This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival). Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention. There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.
Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness. The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food. The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict. Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea. Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers. His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden. Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy. Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden. The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.
Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness. That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power. Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement. Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).
When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire. It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations. We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III. The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.
Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment. It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous). Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:
Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.
It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).
Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone. This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it. His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans. To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are. What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses. Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.
I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype. In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is. In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google. Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217. By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?). It already doesn’t make sense!
As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”. Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle. Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention. The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble. And where does that leave us?
Today features a traditional-style porcelain Russian decanter in elegant blue and white glaze. The decanter is handmade Gzhel porcelain with traditional Russian folk-art patterns. However the vessel is not completely traditional—it is in the shape of a rocket. The piece commemorates Belka and Strelka, two dogs who went in to orbit on Sputnik 5 in 1960 and returned safely to Earth. They were space pioneers in all sorts of ways!
I like this sort of object–which combines except it commemorates an even which happened more than 50 years ago. Our space milestones are receding in the past, and although the robot probes exploring the solar system are learning amazing things, they do not seem to keep the public’s attention the same way that two lovable Soviet dogs did.
Happy Valentine’s Day! The three traditional symbols of this holiday are (1) a voluptuous heart-shape, (2) Cupid, and (3) a pair of doves. The first of these—the shapely heart–is a medieval symbol, but the other two holiday symbols are much older and trace their way back to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The mischievous archer Cupid was the god of infatuation and besottment—with his phallic arrow, he is so ouvert that he is barely a symbol. In the world of Christian iconography, doves represent peace, divine revelation, and the holy spirit, however in the classical world they were the bird of Aprodite/Venus. Valentine’s Day is really Lupercalia—the fertility festival to Lupercus (Pan). In the modern world it (barely) masquerades as an acceptable holiday, but its wild roots are never far away. I get the sense these doves are really the amorous doves of Venus and not representations of peace.
To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.
Doves pulled the chariot of Venus and they nearly always attended to her. Their tenderness with each other and their ability to rapidly proliferate made them abiding symbols of love. Additionally, doves are uniquely beautiful and otherworldly and yet also commonplace. They can fly to the heights of heaven and yet consist on meager scraps in wastelands. Maybe doves really are a good symbol of love!
Ferrebeekeeper has long served Athena, the virgin goddess of truth and wisdom (although she is never the most popular goddess, she is certainly the BEST and is always is victorious in the end), and, in my time, I have also served Dionysus. All American are compelled to serve Hera for 8 hours every workday (except the super-rich, who serve her constantly). Yet Aphrodite has almost always eluded me. Springs come and go and the long decades pass, but love is elusive. Maybe some sacred doves will please coy Aphrodite.
In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. I hope you find the love you are looking for in your life. Or at least I hope you enjoy these doves and maybe some chocolate!
Saturday (January 28th, 2017) was Chinese New Year! It’s now year 4714, the year of the fire rooster! Holy smokes, that sounds like an intense animal. Ferrebeekeeper is going to celebrate the spring festival with a whole week devoted to chickens (especially roosters). I write a lot about other animals, but I owe a truly inconceivable debt to chickens, since chicken and rice are my staple foods. Indeed, I eat so many chickens that, I am probably going to get to the afterlife and find hundreds of thousands of angry spirit chickens waiting for me with flame eyes and needle sharp ghost beaks. A week of pro-chicken posts can only help when that day comes.
Tomorrow we will talk about the ancestral wild chickens—the red junglefowl of the subcontinent—and how they became humankind’s favorite bird (if you look at the scale of chicken farming, I think you will agree that no mighty eagle, or super-intelligent pet parrot can compare in our collective esteem). We have some other observations to make about chickens as domestic animals and some rooster anecdotes. A brain-damaged rooster was the animal sidekick in Disney’s latest (amazing) princess film. My parents have an ugly multicolor rooster who is somehow endearing himself to them. Before then though, so I have something on this first workday of, uh, 4714, I would like to present these 4 chicken themed flounders.
The one at the top is a fairly straightforward rooster, greeting the dawn from the back of a turbot which is swimming between classical urns and stars which look like flowers. We will talk more later about the second flounder/chicken hybrid (which not only evokes the lost world of zoomorphs, but also speaks to my roommate’s latest creative/spiritual/magical pursuits (?). This leaves the third flatfish (in glowing green), a clear allegory of the serpent tempting humankind to taste chickens (as various mythical animals and imps excluded from creation look on from beyond the charmed circle).
Finally, there is a contortionist aiming her bow at a target beyond this world as a glowing multicolor cock stares her beadily in the eye. The sable flounder is surrounded by bats in the crepuscular sky as well as an armadillo and a horny toad. We will talk more about chickens tomorrow, but these images should give you plenty to think about as you start off the new year.