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Founder/Flounder Galley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor

Here is another image from my little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. This past year I have been trying to become better at drawing an image with a nib and then coloring it with watercolors (the go-to methodology of illustrators who want beautiful diagrammatic details). I am getting better at this technique…but I am still not a master of photographing small artworks with a cellphone camera (the true signature medium of our age). Anyway, here are a bunch of hapless galley slaves rowing along in glum resignation as their captain and officers take the fragile wooden ship through a mermaid-haunted reef. Huge poisonous monsters and weird idols stand on the deck. Hungry seabirds and devilfish size up the sailors as a Chinese junk sails by out in the navigable strait and a German airship floats by like a leaf. I see no way that this small composition could represent our entire Rube Goldberg economic system of world trade. Also there is a flounder, floundering along the sand hunting for worms and copepods. Let’s hope that no larger fish or fisherman show up to hook or spear or dynamite the poor hungry fish!

Oops…better get back to rowing…

“Pythia – the priestess at Delphi – making oracles at the new moon” (Emile Bayard, 1886) engraving

Here is a beautiful nineteenth century engraving which illustrates how Second Empire French artists imagined the pythia of Apollo. This image is particularly dramatic since the pythia is not only hopped up on divination fumes but is also wrestling with some rather alarming serpents (they don’t quite seem to be pythons, but I suppose when giant hissing snakes are wrapped around you, it is pointless to quibble about herpetology). Although the light falling on the pythia makes her pop out from the rest of the work to such an extent that, at first, she almost seems alone, my favorite part of the print are the interpreters/querents in the shadowy background who are pursing their lips and furrowing their brows as they try to parse out the divine meaning of the oracle’s presentation. This print was created by the master illustrator Émile Bayard who is still famous for his heart-wrenching image of Cosette from “Les Miserables.” Additionally, Bayard was one of the first-ever science fiction artists: he attempted to portray Jules Verne’s space travel novels based on scientific and natural sources (as opposed to basing heavenly imagery on myth and religion–as had been the norm up until the end of the 19th century).

Today is tax day here in America, so perhaps some readers may also feel as though they are wrestling with wrathful serpents of unnatural creation. Alternately some readers may feel that they need to ask a mystical oracle for special clarification (ed’s note: Don’t do any such thing! If you have tax-based questions, please consult a tax professional or contact the IRS). Although it has been a while since I refreshed the answers, you can always head over to The Great Flounder, to ask the piscine sage for secrets of the dark underwater depths! Good luck!

The last few blossoms are dropping from the cherry tree and now even the late tulips are blooming. Spring has sprung and we are moving past cherry blossom season towards summer. Yet even though summer is my favorite season, I feel a melancholy pang every year when the blossoms flutter down. Time moves by so fast and nothing can arrest its inexorable passing…nothing except for the magic of art, that is! Therefore, here is my yearly blossom painting. I made this one with watercolor and ink and I was hoping to capture the transitory moment when the sun dips from the sky and the lanterns come on and yet the sky remains heavenly blue (it is an ephemeral moment of the day which mirrors the equinox moments of the year.

Kwanzan Cherry Tree in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Although the real subject of my picture is the blossoming cherry tree (the full beauty of which has, yet again, eluded me), I tried to capture some other garden delights–the crabapple tree blossoms (at far right), the dogwood blossoms (at top left), the riot of tulips, and the ornamental winter cabbage which somehow survived living under two feet of snow in January and February in order to bloom in May. One of my roommates is back there in her golden ochre coat looking at bingo on her phone and the faces of the garden statues can be glimpsed in the tulip beds. At the center of the picture is another wistful figure tinged with melancholia. My best friend is a tiny black cat with a dab of white who sneaked into the basement when she was a kitten. After the death of Sepia Cat back in March, Sumi Cat is now my only pet. She is as loving and domesticated as any cat I have met and sleeps in my arms at night (indeed she is cavorting on the keyboard this very moment, trying to type over what I am writing and command my attention). But Sumi has relatives on the outside. On the other side of the sliding door she has siblings and nieces and nephews who are not domesticated but live the short yet intense lives of feral cats. I think that is her sister’s daughter there in the garden (she looks identical to Sumi, except Sumi has a white fingerprint on her heart where Kwan Yin touched her), and I am always sad that I didn’t trap her and her brother (and their little siblings who vanished forever when they were the size of teacups) and drag them to the “Cats of Flatbush” cat rescue organization. Sigh. What are we going to do about the way of the world?

ghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghnhyhyhyhyuuuu (Sumi added that post script so I am putting in a little author picture below)

Sumi doesn’t really look like this at all..but black cats are impossible to photograph…
Brooklyn Brill and the Roller Dance Party of ’21 (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Sooner or later, the end of quarantine lockdown is coming and it will be such a joyous shindig! Here is a little watercolor painting from my moleskine sketchbook which begins to conceptualize the freedom and the fun of the summer of ’21…and yet even in my imagination the roller-skating goddess is wearing a mask! I wonder how long it will be before we ever see a public gathering without some weird respiratory accessories (assuming such a thing ever happens again). Anyway, the image shows the Coney Island Boardwalk at night. In addition to the magical rollerskating disco woman–who needs no explanation–there are two novelty rubber chickens and some sentient dancing fruit (probably left over from the ’80s). An accordion player plies his craft as a shy young hotdog takes a first few tentative dance steps. While the rollercoaster runs in the background, a crab in the foreground seemingly wonders if a cigarette will give him cancer.

In the upper left of the image is a rather strange steel structure which Brooklyn residents will immediately recognize as the “Parachute Jump”. This was some sort of horrifying human sacrifice-themed amusement park novelty of the early twentieth century and its steel skeleton still lingers at the edge of the continent to remind us of delights now gone forever. Preposterously a spoonbill is flying towards the erstwhile ride. Everyone knows that is not a native bird!

At its best, Chinese calligraphy is ineffably beautiful and seems to come from some transcendent celestial realm. Of course, in reality, such art doesn’t come from heaven at all. Instead it comes from distracted scholarly human beings carefully writing with bristle brushes sopping with India ink which, trust me, will not wash out of any textile. Indeed India ink stains most things other than the most impervious vitreous surfaces [sadly looks at black stipples, spots, and spatters on desk]. The Chinese attempted to coral this problem by manufacturing a class of small porcelain objects for the literati–exquisite brush rests! My favorite of these were made during the Ming Dynasty when handicraft cobalt glazed porcelain reached its aesthetic zenith.

Brush-rest with Arabic Script in Underglaze Blue, China-Ming Zhengde Period (1506–21)

Here is a little gallery of little Ming brush rests. I have great confidence in the authenticity of the first five of these rests which follow a familiar silk-road pattern (note the Persian and Arabic characters, which, I am told, say things like “brush stand” and “pen rest”). It is exciting to see how individual artisans take different directions with very similar designs and elements. Indeed, in the first two examples at the top, you can see how different glaze painters literally followed the same pattern (slavishly copying from a template was very common in the great Ming porcelain production centers–but the results strike our industrialized sensibilities as being quite markedly different).

The brush holders also exemplify how the glories of Ming ornamental design come from a mishmash of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern sources. Even if the little stylized blue vines and flowers are clearly cobalt they still look realistic and seem as though they might wither if not watered or sprout additional buds.

1973.7-26.366 Blue-and-white brushrest OA

Although these last two brush rests are different than the rest, the one above is pretty obviously a real Ming piece. The brush holder which seems out of place (and is not in the collection of the Met or the British Museum or the Liang Yi Museum) is the final one. I am of two minds about it. Although the super glossy porcelain has the look of real dynastic porcelain (along with some of the little brown spots and flea bites which are invariably found in actual handmade goods from Medieval China), there is something fishy about those ribbon-y scholars. I love the overall shape though and the the expressiveness of those escarpment rocks on the first and fourth peaks. I guess you will have to be the judge about the last one on your own.

Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

February is Black History month! While other, better-informed sources have covered the biographies and histories of recent African American luminaries, we are stepping far back in time (and far away on the map) to find a subject for this post. This (conveniently) spares us from looking into the nightmarish Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of associated injustices which have formed the foundation of Black history in the new world, but, it also means we must examine the mindsets and mentalities of Ancient Roman and Medieval societies. The prejudices and projections of those eras are…different from what we might expect, but writing about that time from a modern vantage poses all sorts of moral and epistemological quandaries. And that is before we even ask about whether any of this is real.

Saint Maurice (Lucas Cranach, ca. 1520) oil on panel

Alright…enough historicism. Above is Mauritius of Thebes AKA Saint Maurice, a third century Roman general who led the vaunted Theban Legion, an elite infantry squadron of a thousand Roman legionaries based in Egypt. Born around AD 250 in Thebes, Mauritius was a Coptic Christian, however he was also a Roman soldier who understood how to navigate the mélange of languages, cultures, and faiths at the borders of the vast empire. Or so it seemed–the third century was a time of profound crisis for the Roman Empire, and the Theban Legion was sent across the seas and high mountains to Alpine Gaul (modern Switzerland) to fight against rebels. These rebels were bagaudae, peasant insurgents who revolted against the mercurial rapacity of the Roman elites (who, in turn, found time and resources within the larger cycle of ruin, civil wars, and famine to crush the insurgents utterly). At a pass in the Alps (today known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass), Emperor Maximian ordered Mauritius’ legion to massacre some local Christians. When Mauritius refused to carry out the orders, the Theban legion was punished with decimation (every tenth man was executed), and when Mauritius refused Maximian’s order a second time, the Caesar ordered that Mauritius and all of his men be killed.

And that was it for Mauritius…or would have been except, as with Saint Nicholas, stories and legends began springing up around Mauritius after his death. As an Egyptian soldier in northern lands, Mauritius took on more and more fabulous trappings and appurtenances after his death. Maurice was said to have worn magnificent armor emblazoned with a red cross. He was reputed to have gone into battle bearing the holy lance, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. Otto I (here is his crown!) had Maurice’s sacred remains interred at the great cathedral of Magdeburg,

Soon Maurice was the patron saint of infantrymen, swordsmiths, weavers, alpine soldiers, gout sufferers, dyers, and (maybe best of all) Holy Roman Emperors! In the 12th century, as the German Empire entered a zenith, Maurice’s image was everywhere, and instead of being pictured as a stereotypical Roman, he was portrayed as an African dressed in armor. The rather splendid statue of Maurice at Magdeberg is a fine medieval example. Carved around 1250, the statue portrays Maurice in 13th century chainmail and with ebony skin and undisguised (and un-caricatured) Nubian features.

Saint Maurice (Anonymous sculptor, ca 1250) painted wood

The Cult of Maurice became more prominent up until the mid-16th century when suddenly everything changed (as the burgeoning African slave trade spread its racist lies and cruel stereotypes to Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Switzerland). Suddenly Maurice turned white (and less important within his own story)!

So, uh, who was Maurice? Was he a Roman soldier or a holy man? Was he Black or a Roman or an Egyptian or what? Why is he dressed as a 15th century German courtier? Was he even a real person? Unfortunately none of the answers to those questions are straightforward or even satisfactory. Neither Romans (some of whom were Black) nor Medieval lords (some of whom were Black) thought of race in the same way as 18th century plantation owners (some of whom were Black). Maurice could have been Black and Egyptian and a Roman general. Saint Maurice is thought of as the first black Christian Saint except for maybe, uh, Jesus, who is equally ambiguous and hard to pin down (and also maybe not real). If I had to guess, I would say Maurice was not real–or rather he was real in the way that Jesus was real: which is to say that there were indeed military commanders and problematic street rabbis roaming around the Roman world and Christian writers used these figures to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Meeting of St Erasm and St Maurice (Mathias Grünewald,ca.1517-23) oil on panel

And what a story this is! At its heart, Saint Maurice’s story is a transcendent story of moral bravery and sacrifice. It is also a dangerous story capable of unending all social hierarchies. When the Emperor of known civilization gives one of his generals an order to kill innocent people, the soldier decides to give up his social standing, his men, and even his life rather than follow the unjust command. Such radical compassion is truly Christlike! It immediately illustrates that there are bigger things going on than rank, status, victory, empire..or even survival. Saint Maurice makes us think hard about human choices. It would be lovely to think that racial identity is likewise a fungible choice to be dispensed with in the face of larger moral imperatives, but, alas, in this world of continuing bigotry, such idealism is also apparently still a myth.

It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

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