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Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

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This year’s Halloween theme (both in Ferrebeekeeper and our benighted democracy) is “Evil Clowns”.  Clowns date back to dynastic Egypt and they have always been liminal figures who have straddled lines between wisdom and foolishness, outcast and insider, living person and weird effigy, and even between good and evil.  Evil clowns really got up and running as a meme in the 19th century with stories like “Hop Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, yet there is a critical precursor which I overlooked.  Back when I was young and innocent, I started a toy company with a mysterious & dodgy business person I met.  For some reason, running an international business proved impossible, but I loved making toys and I also enjoyed looking back through the history of toys which combines cultural, technological, and art history (and which stretches to before Eridu rose from the mud).  Evil clowns turn out to have a very direct link with one of the most successful and powerful toy concepts of the last thousand years.

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In the early 16th century, a German clock-maker known as Claus built the first known example of what we would call a “Jack in the Box” for a local princeling.  Claus built a wooden box which popped open when the user turned the crank.  Except it wasn’t a clown that popped out, it was a devil!  The French name for this toy is “diable en boîte” (devil in a box) which hearkens back to the first generation jack-in-the-boxes which were all devils.   Some toy historians speculate that all of this was related to a 14th century English prelate named Sir John Schorne who was said to possess a boot with a devil inside it (for reasons which are obscure).

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Fairly on, jack-in-the-box toys diversified from being just devils, but a lot of these clowns maintained a sort of Krampus-like demonic aspect to them.  Here are some photos I stole at random from around the web and I think they illustrate how alarming Jack in the boxes are (although people with sensitive and anxious temperaments could already tell you that–this is after all a toy meant to startle you)

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Gah! Just look at these puppies…and they were made for children.  Jack-in-the-boxes are already bad enough, but imagine if one of these things popped out.  The depraved marketers for the movie “It” made a jack-in-the-box featuring Pennywise, the evil clown from that movie (see below) but frankly Pennywise looks like he would be mugged by any of these older anonymous jack-in-the-box clowns.  It is hard to say anything with certainty when we are talking about nebulous and ancient cultural concepts, but I wonder if the idea of clowns as terrifying bogey-men didn’t come as much from generations of jack-in-the-box scarred children as from literary lions like King and Poe.

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The definitive evil clown is the shape-shifting monster in Stephen King’s “It” (unless we are talking about John Wayne Gacy, and, frankly, I think the State of Illinois said all that needs to be said concerning that guy with a stiff dose of potassium chloride).  I hungrily read “It” when I was approximately the same age as the pre-teen protagonists (although the book alternates between their lives as kids in 1958 and successful early-middle aged adults in 1985).  It made an indelible impression on 12-year old me: I have been mulling over this magnum opus among penny dreadfuls for 33 years. Its hold on my imagination has outlasted much finer books. Since I have thought about it so long and since I am writing about killer clowns, I guess I should write about it…er “It” (the book I mean…the movies were terrible). [Also, beware: spoilers (and killer clowns) ahead.]

What is truly horrifying about Stephen King novels is never really the rubber monster who is ostensibly the villain.  Shape-shifting predatory clown spiders from outer space almost surely don’t exist (or if they do, we have neither evidence nor any possible chains of epistemological logic which could lead us to such an astonishing conclusion).  The monster is therefor a stand-in–a metaphor for our real fears.  Since the book is gigantic and contains many, many murderous attacks by the eponymous shape-shifting monster (and also, revealingly, violent episodes from other entities which we will address shortly), King has a clever way to touch on all sorts of different phobias like fear of blood, fear of the dark, fear of getting lost, fear of germs, fear of madness, fear of heights, fear of drowning, fear of guns, fear of being eaten etc…etc…

Yet it is not these episodes which give the book its uncanny terror.  As we bounce between the lives of the 11 year olds living in 1958 (who have discovered that a monstrous predator living in the sewer is murdering their peers) and the lives of 1985 yuppies who realize the monster has returned to kill again, there are interludes where the author’s proxy, the wise town librarian, tells us about previous cycles of murders going back every 27 years until before there were humans in Maine.  These are the best parts of the book–painted with bravura strokes of dark imagination from all of the eras of American history.  There was a trapping post which vanished without trace into the brooding northwoods,  a hideous industrial accident on Easter which killed all of the town’s children who were hunting Easter Eggs, and an extra-judicial killing of some 30s gangsters which got out of hand. Worst of all, there was arson at a mixed-race nightclub, when white supremacists burned a lot of unsuspecting people to death.

The reader comes to recognize that it is the social compact underlying Derry which is horrifying.  The librarian-narrator hints at what King never explicitly says:  Derry prospers because it successfully turns its back on these nightmarish outbursts and then sweeps them into the sewer.  Ghastly human sacrifice lies beneath the Victorian cottages, the Standpipe, the five-and-dime, the Paul Bunyan statue, and the war memorial; yet people get back to selling VCRs, cheap whiskey, car insurance, and forestry products to each other without even noticing.

I worked for a year at the Smithsonian–“the nation’s attic”–and the things which are not on display there are so much more powerful and revealing than the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the first lady’s gowns, and Archy Bunker’s chair (although those things do tell a story, don’t they?).  The Smithsonian has room after room of evil machines which destroyed their operators, it has boxes of cowboy boots made with human skin, it has the triangle shirt-waist factory door with scratches in the charred metal.  It has the Enola Gay!  Looking at the collection behind the scenes in aggregate reveals how many of the stories of history we just sort of forget.  Such a survey also painfully contextualizes the tiny span of our lives within a vastly larger story (which is a horror born of absolute certainty which looms larger than any shapeshifting predatory clown).

Like Hop Frog’s murder within a prank, or Pagliacci’s murder within a play within an opera, there are layers of verisimilitude in King’s book. There are truths which only pre-adults can savvy.  The monster in the sewer beneath the town shows up in tales within tales within the larger canon of history (which is, of course all within a big novel).  The onion-like levels of false reality are disconcerting, but necessary to make us realize that the setting of this work is not Derry but America.

The real monster in the room in “It” is, of course, the good people of Derry. If you really peel off the clown mask you don’t find a space spider, you find Americans who believe they are absolutely right in giving their daughter a shiner when she comes home late, or cutting some corners to keep the factory open, or in doing what it takes to “protect” their town from gangsters and immoral night clubs.  Likewise all of the child abuse, molestation, and neglect is as real as rainwater (and similarly un-noteworthy).  You don’t have to buy a Steven King novel to find that sort of thing: you can read much more shocking examples in today’s news.

So the novel “It” gains some of its strength from evoking childhood fears and common phobias (like the fear of clowns or spiders) but it draws its real nightmare strength by holding up a dark mirror to America and revealing how our social structures are riddled with ominous failures and horribly unjust interludes…which we simply pretend don’t exist.

Clowns themselves are not real.  They are just people wearing makeup and costumes.  People though are too real and, in case you don’t follow the news, there is nothing scarier than us.  The small town folk of the novel are addicted to a meretricious idea of success.  They will ignore unspeakable things to uphold this self-image. The killer clown is like one of Shakespeare’s jesters trying to whisper this unpalatable truth in our ears as we grind through days at the retail shop, the dying factory, and the office.

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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Ok! Well, evidently it’s evil clown week here at Ferrebeekeeper so I guess we better aim for the juggler and find some evil clowns to start with.  As we will see later this week, clowns, jesters, mimes, buffoons, and comic/disturbing tricksters go wayyyyy back to the roots of civilization (and beyond?) in pretty much every civilization. Brother Jung really seems to have been on something…um, I mean onto something when he identified this as an enduring human archetype.  However the definitive evil clown as a well-known literary trope is rather more recent.  Our Western clown tradition descends from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Comic buffoons were a mainstay in the bits of Roman comedy which have survived, yet, although the clowns of Terence and Plautus were lusty and sometimes violent, they are principally oafs who are not necessarily together enough or self-aware enough to be properly evil.  The Roman clowns of antiquity were certainly grotesque and disturbing though (and we only have bits and pieces of Roman art, culture, and literature–it’s possible there were evil clowns we just don’t know about).  This tradition of clowns as earthy, honest, and physical continued on through the dark ages.  Medieval jesters, such as we find highlighted in the works of Shakespeare, were slanted characters: they are risible and rather sad, yet they can speak truth to the most powerful figures (and they seem to know some of the dark secrets of the grave as well).  The Yorick scene from Hamlet does not involve an evil clown per-se, but it is a messed-up and gruesome scene.

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To my (sadly incomplete) knowledge the first proper evil clown of our study is found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The grotesque cripple Hop Frog (from the 1849 story “Hop Frog”) is a small person and slave who is forced to serve as a jester and general punching bag for a cruel king (you can read the entire original story right here, and should do so now if you want to avoid spoilers).  Hop Frog is a pitiable figure whose deformity pains him and who is unable to protect his one friend, the lovely small woman, Trippetta, as the grotesque narcissistic monarch and his seven wicked councilors torment them.

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Poe’s brilliance is that he makes us sympathize fully with the dwarf (the literary antecedent to Oskar Matzerath and Tyrion Lannister) and despise the king.  Indeed the evil king is practically an evil clown himself: he’s a showman who brutally insults and hurts people “as a joke” (this cruel, debauched, and loutish ruler seems weirdly familiar). We thus become complicit in Hop Frog’s scheme for revenge.  And Hop Frog gets full vengeance!  The trick he pulls on the king and the seven cruel ministers results in the death of all eight–in the most mortifying, painful, and public spectacle possible, while Hop Frog uses his upper arm-strength (and planning abilities) to escape with Trippetta.  Hop Frog is quite sympathetic…at first but the reader’s sympathy is part of Poe’s own cruel jape.  The way the little jester gets the king to conspire in his own demise (the murder seems like a staged prank–to such a degree that nobody helps the dying monarch and courtiers)  is so hideous that, by the end of the story, the reader does not know what to think and has nobody to sympathize with.  There is a room filled with charred bodies dangling on chains and the clown (and his paramour) are nowhere to be found.

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The fame of Poe’s work (and the bourgeoning circuses of the rapidly industrializing 19th century) brought more evil clowns to prominence during that century! In Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci (which means “clowns”) the jealous and manipulative Tonio obtains revenge upon Nedda and her lover while dressed as a clown…inside a play…inside an opera.

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With both Hop Frog and Pagliacci the murderous wrath of a costumed maniac is only part of the horror.  Arguably the staged manipulation of different levels of verisimilitude is the truly disconcerting aspect of the works. Even in their earliest manifestations, the best trick of the evil clown was to stage manage the audience’s fear into something which crept through different layers of artifice into the real worlf.  These tricks within tricks… inside plays within plays… become a dark hall of mirrors where the fears of social disorder metastasize into something darker… [to be continued]

 

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We are in the second half of October and it’s high time to reveal Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween theme for 2019!  Past years have featured themes like Flowers of the Underworld, The Mother of Monsters, Flaying, Necropolises, and, my personal favorite, The Undead.  A cursory glance at the top-selling masks at the giant costume shop on Broadway has made me realize that this year can only have one choice.  For mysterious reasons which probably have half to do with contemporary American politics and half to do with winding up an accursed jack-in-the-box found at the annex of Hell (insomuch as those two things are different), this is the year of scary clowns.  Who is Ferrebeekeeper to stand in the way of this tiny car filled with quasi-infinite dark pranksters?

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In 2019 Joker, Harley Quinn, and Pennywise rule the box office,  Pagliacci rules the opera house, and “Clown Girl” rules the Barnes and Noble (ok, actually, maybe I am the only person who read Monica Drake’s perplexing 2007 down-and-out in Baloneytown novel, but it has certainly stayed with me).

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Clowns are hardly a modern or even a western phenomena.  They stretch through almost every culture and, as we shall see, they trace their roots to the beginning of civilization (and probably beyond).  Carl Jung, who has many strange and interesting things to say, sees teh trickster as one of the oldest and most fundamental archetypes which humans recreate again and again.  On one hand the trickster is a figure of buffoonish comic fun, and yet,  the trickster’s nature has always been dual.  Let’s hear a quote from Jung himself (from Four Archetypes: Mother Rebirth Spirit Trickster):

In picaresque tales, in carnivals and revels, in magic rites of healing, in man’s religious fears and exaltations, this phantom of the trickster haunts the mythology of all ages, sometimes in quite unmistakable form, sometimes in strangely modulated guise.n He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level. That this is how the trickster figure originated can hardly be contested if we look at it from the causal and historical angle. In psychology as in biology we cannot afford to overlook or underestimate this question of origins, although the answer usually tells us nothing about the functional meaning. For this reason biology should never forget the question of purpose, for only by answering that can we get at the meaning of a phenomenon. Even in pathology, where we are concerned with lesions which have no meaning in themselves, the exclusively causal approach proves to be inadequate, since there are a number of pathological phenomena which only give up their meaning when we inquire into their purpose. And where we are concerned with the normal phenomena of life, this question of purpose takes undisputed precedence.

Wow! Brother Carl really did have some peculiar things to say.  What on Earth is he talking about?  Join me in the days leading up to Halloween and we will see if we can make sense of what he is talking about by looking at clowns in history and art, and running the trickster back to his/her ancient roots.

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Of course, trying to trap and analyze the ancient spirit of dark mischief doesn’t sound like a venture which is going to work, but at least there should be some spine-tingling surprises and some hair raising mishief (and maybe some funny pratfalls).  Anyway, it’s all in good seasonal fun.  What is the worst that could happen?

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Oh…

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Greek mythology is filled with horrors.  There are poisonous monsters with super regeneration/multiplication powers.  There are child-eating cannibal gods (in charge of everything, no less).  There are gods of pure fear and anguish.  And this is to say nothing of giant dragons, impenetrable lions, three headed demon dogs, and haughty musically-inclined deities. Yet the scary Greek antagonist that I find most alarming (as an adult) was merely a renegade blacksmith and petty bandit.   According to classical myth, Procrustes was a bastard son of Poseidon who lived in Attica.  He had a hideout on the sacred road running from Athens to Eleusis and he would rob and murder unlucky pilgrims.

Yet it was the imaginatively metaphorical way which Procrustes utilized to dispatch his victims which makes him so dreadful.  Procrustes had an iron bed which he would force his victims to lie on.  If they were longer than the bed, he would lop off all of the surplus bits until they fit perfectly.  If they were shorter, he would take his hammer and tongs and stretch them and pound them until they fit.

This all seems like standard horror fare which would make for a fine Cary Elwes movie, except for the fact that Procrustes’ OCD methodology became such a profound  inspiration for bureaucracies and institutions everywhere.  I suspect this story is the underlying motivation for half the management classes in business school, and anybody who has ever filled out an art show application will be shuddering with recognition. Everyone has had to deal with a one-size-fits-all situation which did not fit them at all: it seems like industrialized society takes its greatest inspiration from Procrustes.

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Of course the story is redeemed by its satisfying conclusion.  Theseus, the thinking man’s Greek hero, cleaned up Attica (before making his way to the throne, via Crete and the labyrinth).  When Procrustes tried to mug Theseus, the young hero was ready and he violently defeated the smith.  Then Theseus bound the giant to the infamous murder bed and rectified the situation by giving Procrustes a taste of his own medicine.  The story takes on a certain tragic aspect though if you believe that Theseus was also a demi-god who was born of Poseidon (the wine-soaked conception of Theseus makes his parentage unclear….and yet, come on, his father was clearly Poseidon).

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Anyway, this is where we get the word “Procrustean” which is extremely useful for describing numerous unhappy situations where the protagonist (i.e. you) are made to fit into the wrong sort of station, position, or circumstances.  Thanks for the concept, Greek mythology!  This will give us something to think about while falling asleep.

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The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was the first great flowering of Egyptian civilization when the architectural and cultural trends which we regard as characteristic of Ancient Egypt became all pervasive.  It was also a glorious golden era of ancient human culture and the accomplishments (and some of the individual figures) of the era are still well known.   Although the Fourth Dynasty  (2613 to 2494 BC) is perhaps the most famous period of the Old Kingdom thanks to the enormous pyramid shaped tombs which were built then, the subsequent Fifth Dynasty (2494 BC–ca. 2345 BC) was also an era of enormous wealth and success which witnessed a great expansion of trade and cultural connections (thanks to the development of large ocean-going boats).

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A painting in Khuwy’s tomb displaying the graceful boats and gifted sailors of the 5th Dynasty (Ministry of Culture of Egypt)

All of this is back story to this amazing archaeological discovery which opened to the public earlier this year.  This is the tomb of Khuwy, a Fifth Dynasty nobleman who seemingly had some sort of close connection to Djedkare Isesi, the penultimate pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty.  The tomb was discovered near Saqqara, a vast necropolis just south of Cairo in early spring of this year (2019 AD).  Since the tomb was undisturbed for all of those centuries, the colors of the paint upon the wall are particularly fresh and vibrant (especially the reds greens and yellows).

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Seated Khuwy accepting offerings

The L shaped tomb consists of a passageway to an antechamber. Beyond the antechamber lies the main chamber which features a painting of the seated Khuwy accepting offerings (above) such as the tasty cuts of beef which cattle farmers are cutting off of a slaughtered spotted cow in this vivid painting from 4300 years ago (below).  The mummified Khuwy was present as well, along with canopic jars containing several of his favorite internal organs, however the jars and the mummy were broken.

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So who exactly was Khuwy and how was he related to Pharaoh? Why are the paintings in this tomb executed in a fashion (and with fancy pigments) usually reserved for royalty?  What happened to Khuwy’s mummy and why isn’t there a picture of that wrapped-up spooky fellow in this October blog post?  The answers are not known yet but archaeologists (and others) are working on solving these ancient mysteries and Ferrebeekeeper will be sure to report if and when the secrets are revealed.

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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

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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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