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To take our minds off of the cabin fever of being stuck at home (in a pandemic…in the snow), today’s post features one of the world’s most extravagant and beautiful buildings. This complex is Wat Rong Khun, the white temple of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Sources inform me that it actually totally exists, right here in the real world (although I find it somewhat difficult to believe such a thing, because, well, just look at it!).

Wat Ron Khun was an extant Buddhist temple (one of thousands throughout Southeast Asia) which, by the end of the twentieth century, had fallen into disrepair. In 1997, Thai visionary artist Chalermchai Kositpipat restored/rebuilt the temple into the fantastical form which you see in these photos. Interestingly Wikipedia now balks at calling Wat Rong Khun a temple and instead describes the complex as “a privately owned art installation” where people can meditate and learn about Buddhist teachings (and which is intended to ingratiate Kositpipat into Buddha’s good graces and ensure immortal life for the artist). Hmm… How is that different from just saying “temple”?

Anyway, the bridges, gates, and buildings of Wat Rong Khun are all white or reflective with one big exception. The building which houses the compound bathrooms are gold. The white/mirror colors reflect the mind and the intellect–colorless, pure, and abstract. The bathroom compound however is gold to contextualize worldly and physical concerns (such as material wealth).

Still, it’s a pretty nice bathroom

Gardens aside, the other non-monochrome portion of the compound is found in the main ubosot, where mind-bendingly strange murals illustrate the human condition. These murals are not as, uh…restrained (?) as the rest of the wat, and I will write about them later when I feel stronger. Suffice it to say that if anything belonged inside this squirming albescent nirvana-cake, it is the paintings which are indeed in there.

Although I suppose I should be comparing Wat Rong Khun with Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew (the “temple of a thousand bottles”) what it truly reminds me of is Orvieto Cathedral, another installation/temple which is completely bedazzled with mind-altering religious ornamentation (and which features insane hell frescoes inside). Let’s all get vaccinated so we can go to some of these places in the real world (assuming they can indeed actually be found there).

We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.

Outside Knoxville, (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and watercolor

Now that the holidays have passed, it has occurred to me that I should post some of the India ink and watercolor illustrations which I have been making lately for fun (or, more accurately, because my subconscious torments me unless I draw them). The first (above) is a little illustration which I made as a gift for my erstwhile roommate, Jennifer. Sadly, Jennifer gave up on the germinal chaos of Brooklyn and fled away forever to live in the bosky dells of Knoxville (or whatever it is they have down there). But she used the epistolary arts to request a drawing of a magical elf desporting among many varieties of fungi just outside of her new home city.

Here is the picture I drew. I have envisioned the magical elf in the style of the Nats, the joyous syncretic deities of Burmese Buddhism. Various seeds, spores, and small creatures lurk beneath the mushrooms, wood ears, and coral fungus. In the background, modern Knoxville spreads through the wooded hills watched by a vulture, an ermine, and a whitetail deer (as a mysterious being of pure creativity fruits into fungoid darkness). Above it all looms the mighty “Sun Sphere”, a dazzling feat of 80 architecture which is uh, eighty meters tall.

As a historical aside, I encountered that very tower myself, in 1982, when my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, my sister, and I traveled to Knoxville to attend the World’s Fair for which it was built. Although I was only eight, I was struck by how crummy and chaotic the World’s Fair was and how the Sun Sphere looked like off-brand deodorant rather than a mighty futuristic skyscraper. For her birthday, my little sister (who was five or six) had asked for a fine suitcase so she could be a world traveler. My parents (or grandparents?) bought her a beautiful new fuchsia case of finest sampsonite, which was the nicest piece of luggage among our entourage. Alas, a would-be larcenist broke into our hotel room and rifled through the nicest suitcase (which was all full of crayons, dolls, and little girl’s clothing). The fair was too crowded to see anything, although, come to think of it, I am not sure there were any actual attractions other than an endless field of bumpkins and insurance-salesman-looking characters. Then a bird pooped on my grandmother’s head. Good times in Knoxville!

A Dab for Breakfast (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and Watercolor

Here is a similar drawing which I made in my little sketch book. I guess this picture portrays…breakfast? Since I am not a morning person, I refuse to acknowledge the International Morning Person (IMP) propaganda that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This tableau helps to deconstruct that tenacious myth. In the foreground a pelican enjoys a live flounder and some froot loops–even though this is properly a cereal for toucans! A sentient pineapple throws up his arms in consternation at the proceedings as a masked ghost (or possibly some very very runny scrambled eggs) shrugs indifferently. On the picture’s left side, a featureless pink humanoid…or maybe an embryonic ghost…or a representation of how the artist/author feels in the morning is likewise overwhelmed by breakfast. The entity drinks copious amounts of coffee, possibly going so far as to pour the stimulant directly into the grotesque organ-like aperture in its center. No wonder the little guy is so anxious! Frankly, only the ravenous pelican seems happy to be there.

Even if flatfish are not the sole protagonists of these small drawings, they are still there, lurking beneath (or becoming part of the food chain). Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to again advertise the all-knowing digital flounder which my friends and I built to delight and perplex you (or maybe as a disguised lure to beguile you into my digital realm). Let me know what you think and we will keep on floundering through this winter!

Oh wow! Finally a whole new year! And it certainly couldn’t come fast enough! Every new year brings big questions, and, after the struggle and strife of the past year, 2021 features even more questions than usual.

That is why, as part of a long-promised rebranding effort, we here at Ferrebeekeeper are re-introducing and relaunching some projects which have thus far only existed in beta version! Most significantly, we would like to introduce….

[lights go out]

[Nereids rattle sistrums]

[Balding Nereus slowly beats enormous drum atoll as a mermaid’s keening song pervades the salty air]

[the world goes completely silent and then fireworks explode like enormous magenta and aqua jellyfish. Triton blows a blast on his conch as Poseidon strikes a huge gong]

Behold! The Great Flounder reborn!

Uh, here is the link!

If you follow that link, you will arrive at the new site of The Great Flounder Oracle, an online oracle who knows all of the secrets of the primordial depths! Merely write down the innermost queries of your secret heart and the ancient behemoth of the briny depths will answer with terrifying truths of the watery abyss*

And not only can the Great Flounder provide access to otherwise unknowable wisdom, if you follow the link at the bottom you can visit my online web gallery, and ultimately reach a greater trove of ancient wisdom…this very blog! (kudos to you, by the way, for getting in on the ground floor). Ferrebeekeeper is attempting to amalgamate the various creative and journalistic endeavor closer together into an amalgamated media portfolio (is this a concept? probably?) Expect to see more artwork here in the near future (yesterday’s large drawing was a start in that direction). Or, if you follow my Instagram or Twitter profiles expect to see more references to eclectic multidisciplinary knowledge!

Too be honest, my mind tends to wander off down apparently random pathways which are revealed to be part of a much larger universal picture only in the fullness of time. Hopefully trying to anneal my creative efforts together, will make that picture larger and brighter rather than occluding it beneath the seafloor sands!

Whatever the case, I need all of your help to make this web community even better and so please, please provide your comments and ideas in the space below. Every year my new year’s resolution is to reply faster and more comprehensively to comments (which are the life’s blood to a writer) and every year I fall short of my desires, but not this year! This year I really will make it happen! Let me know what you think about the new Great Flounder and this site too! [more contests? more free downloads? more disquieting political commentary). YOU be the judge!

And, speaking of you, I wanted to again thank you for coming back here again and again. You really are the best reader I could ever hope for! Best wishes for a safe and happy new year! Together we can piece it all together and finally launch off to a glorious and magnificent future worth having!

Happy 2021! I will see you here again on Monday and we can start sorting out the direction of this terrifying albeit promising new calendar.

[*or the closest approximation which computer programming and hack fortune writing can provide.]

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

It really is impossible to tell what direction a soul will take in this world of crossroads and unexpected pathways. Back in 2018, Ferrebeekeeper featured a short flippant essay about Gritty, the hirsute maniacal entity who (which?) is the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, a gang of icebound stick fighters. How were any of us to know what Gritty would become?

I have very mixed memories concerning my time in the Philadelphia suburbs (my family lived there from when I was 13 to 15). Moving from a very rural part of America to a toffee-nosed suburb during the 1980s felt like being trapped in a John Hughes movie. Perhaps I have always subconsciously held the awkwardness of that time against Philadelphia and the bedraggled ball of psych(opathic)adelic fur which they have chosen as their mascot. But it turns out I was wrong about Gritty…

Back in 2018, when I wrote my essay, Gritty was the object of much good-natured derision and mockery. It can be hard to write comic pieces, but Gritty’s deranged countenance & straggly fluorescent orange fur (and his weird backstory) seemed sure to get a cheap laugh. Frankly I assumed the mascot would quickly be retired. But Gritty was not who I thought and he (it?) has made good!

First of all Gritty quickly beat all the charges against him (In January he was accused of punching a little boy at a photo shoot, however the authorities were unimpressed by the accusations and Gritty walked away scot-free). Then Gritty became a beloved figure representing the casual insouciance and low grade threat of violence which pervade Philadelphia. Finally he became ubiquitous as a left-wing political symbol and a dull-fledged symbol of what Philadelphia really is.

When soon-to-be ex President Trump disrespected Philadelphia by making them the subject of the only honest declaration he has been known to utter (“Bad things happen in Philadelphia”), Gritty leapt into action. Countless Philadelphia themed memes depicted the strange orange miscreant taking revenge or bringing down the president. Then the memes became true when Philadelphia’s slowly tallied mail-in votes put Joe Biden over the top in the national electoral college tally.

Now Gritty has risen high in the world of mascots. Papers around the world are analyzing him with perplexed respect. The French daily newspaper Le Monde even proclaimed him to be “la coqueluche du mouvement antifasciste” the face of the antifascist movement! Apparently Gritty now represents the world’s disgust with the malevolent demagogues who have been proliferating around the globe!

This will be a hard act to follow. Hopefully citizens will soon regain their political sense and vote out the treacherous far right-wing legislators who have enabled Trump and suchlike despicable demogogues to flourish. However until then we will need Gritty. Go forward in glory, Gritty, you are now America’s foremost crazy-haired orange nightmare!

It is already the middle of October! This year has ground by with such agonizing slowness that it is easy to overlook how swiftly it has flown by! (?) Uhh…anyway, regular readers know that Ferrebeekeeper always presents a special theme week for Halloween, and, plague or no, this year will not be an exception. Past topics have included the Monster Echidna, Flowers of the Underworld, Flaying, the Undead, and Evil Clowns! Place your bets on what the special theme for 2020 will be!

Before we get there, though, I though lets call back to one of my favorite posts from years back by featuring a beautiful ceiling in Venice. Nobody can travel to Venice this year (ahem, not that I was exactly a regular ’round the ol’ Lagoon before all of this happened) so we might as well go there by means of the magical time/space dispensation which art gives to us.

Francesco de Rossi, ca. 1540, Fresco

Here is the ceiling of The Chamber of Apollo in the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. It was painted by the somewhat strange Florentine mannerist, Francesco de Rossi (AKA Francesco Salviati). Completed around 1540 AD, the work showcases Apollo, god of art and light. The center of the composition portrays Apollo riding the chariot of the sun while the constellations of the horoscope circle around him. The four main panels show special episodes from Apollo’s canon of myths. Two of the four concern Apollo’s dispute with Marsyas!

Although the sad end of the contest definitely appears on the ceiling, my favorite panel is the panel (above) which features Apollo listening to Marsyas play. As Marsyas plays his aulos he prances with wild proud abandon! Apollo’s lyre sits at his feet as the god angrily listens to the concert. Not content to let Marsyas play unmolested, Apollo points an angry finger of foreshadowing at Marsyas’ torso.

My own artwork of Apollo and Marsyas portrays the contest itself as opposed to the outcome (although de Rossi painted Marsyas bound to a tree in the next pendant to the right). Like de Rossi’s artwork, my thoughts concerning Apollo and what he means keep going in a circle. I wish somebody from the Renaissance would post some comments so we could get to the bottom of this bloody myth, but I suppose time does not work quite that way. We already have the opinion of long gone artists though, however they are not expressed as little snippets of digital prose, but as magnificent paintings. we will just have to keep on staring at them!

Many years ago I defeated a cruel demon…or so I thought, but now that demon is back in my life wreaking havoc.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2003) oil on canvas

Long ago, when I first came to New York City (back in the nineties!), I did so for one overwhelming reason–to learn to paint realistically! Every day I would work as a stooge at a meaningless, ill-paid office job, then, at night, I would stand neck-to-neck in a crowd of aspiring artists desperately trying to capture the likeness of a real person. Every weeknight, for three-and-a-half hours, I would get more and more unhappy as my legs started to ache and my concentration started to waiver while, on the canvas, the lines of noses and eyes and mouths (mouths are so ridiculously hard to paint!) would begin to sag and drift and change color. Then I would clean my brushes of the poison cadmium and lead, lament my ruined clothes, and ride home on the subway. I would get home at about midnight, have dinner & unwind, and then be up at 7:30 AM to drag myself into the horrible, horrible office to do it all again.

I did this for a year or two before the master portraitist who taught the class even knew my name. Eventually, I could capture a basic likeness. Sometimes it even seemed like I had a hold of some burning creative ember fallen from heaven and the paintings would light up with secret divine fire, before again abruptly becoming muddy lumps smeared on geometric circles & rectangles of cloth.

Oval Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2006) oil on canvas

Whenever a painting seemed to be good I would be so proud. I would take it home and put it up on the wall…and then the defects would start to appear to my eyes. Eventually I would have a bad day at work, or a relationship setback, or some other emotional low point which would pitilessly expose the stupid deficiencies of both my life and my artworks. Then I would grab the ill-made paintings off the wall and slash them apart in paroxysms of rage. Afterwards I would feel painful regrets, as I realized how hard I had worked on a painting which was basically ok except for a fuzzy elbow or maybe even for some defect I had only imagined. Also my friends looked at me aghast (finally realizing how emotionally challenging a life in the arts is) and I would feel ashamed for worrying them with my melodrama.

Eventually the constant exigencies of my ill-fated toy company pushed me out of the night class for good. I still had so many of these paintings that I had worked so hard on. Yet over the years they dwindled as I drank more and as the little toy empire also began to falter and come apart. My angry demon of self-reproach and self-hatred became more savage. My personal collection of student works dwindled down to eight (including only four that were sort of complete). But then I jettisoned that toy company, changed my life around, and embarked on a whole new phase of artistic labor. The last few paintings stayed up on the wall, unmolested. They watched as I trudged to new meaningless day jobs, and crafted doughnut after doughnut, and then flounder after flounder. They became constants in my life as I tried to make things work, until this week, when for various reason, I could no longer abide the sight of these strangers’ faces hanging in my bedroom mocking me for the aspirations I cherished when I was twenty five. The demon had returned.

Tondo Model Study (Wayne Ferrebee, 2004) oil on canvas

For a furious moment of incandescent scarlet rage, it felt wonderful to destroy these failed reminders of the years and years of desperate, fruitless struggle. Only now that they are gone do I realize what friends these faces had become. They were always there through good times and through hard times watching me trudge along America’s treadmill to nowhere. Likewise they watched at night when inspiration struck and I got back to work painting and drawing. From the wall they watched me turn middle aged and saw my youthful strength & illusions drain away. For good or for ill, there will be no more paintings like these. My artistic path has led me elsewhere and I am unlikely to have the luxury to ever return to this pure style

Now I wonder if maybe the three paintings were ok after all. Perhaps the fading cadmium and ochre did hold a luminous fragment of truth about who people really are in their secret minds and hearts. Maybe I actually succeeded in catching a little hint of Rembrandt’s genius or Raphael’s divine mastery. Whatever the case, they are gone now forever because of my temper tantrum. I am sitting around like a ghoul lamenting the absence which I orchestrated.

Art is a journey to the terrifying world of pure ideas and back. It is a dash to the mythical real of gods and monsters. Perhaps you can occasionally return with a glistening treasure of numinous worth. More likely your heart will be wounded and you will be locked in a dark mirror, or forced to put on a fool’s motley garb, or otherwise trapped in the underworld.

Yet I am not writing this painful essay solely about my own wrenching art career (indeed, to my eyes, this essay makes me look even more like a loser). Looking at the worldwide mess which constitutes the year of our lord two-thousand and twenty, it is obvious that I am not the only wounded soul snatching my best accomplishments from past eras off of the walls and slashing them up in fury. A few silly paintings are nothing compared to real faces of friends and family lost to this mismanaged pandemic. What does art matter when the world’s oldest democracy is ripped apart? Art reflects societies and our society is being torn to shreds as the far right becomes an evil, insane cult of personality and as the far left says that all of the nation’s oldest ideals are hopelessly tainted by dark sins of the nation’s youth.

I have always thought my self-destructiveness to be a shameful weakness unique to me and other unhappy people; yet now I see that it is an illness which is society-wide–a horrible danger inherent to trying to change and become better. There is no way for me to go back and piece these three destroyed canvases together. My oeuvre now exists without them. America will have to face some similar truths in an emotional audit. We will all have to work harder to save the good works, flawed as they are (no matter how frustrating we are with ourselves). We are also going to have to trudge back into the underworld…middle-aged, debt-burdened, and with deeper feelings of alarm and anxiety about who we really are.

On the other hand, I did accomplish what I came for. I learned to paint well. Now I just have to learn to live better (and maybe how to talk to gallery owners). If only I had some paintings to show them…

The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

Luca_Signorelli_-_Sermon_and_Deeds_of_the_Antichrist_-_WGA21202

Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

picture-of-antichrist

In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

220px-Signorelli,_Luca_-_selfportrait_alone

It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

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