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04months

Here is an illuminated page of the Grimani Breviary (which is named after a Venetian cardinal who purchased it in 1520 for 500 gold ducates).  The breviary takes the form of a calendar and here is the page for April, which features a party of nobles out in the spring countryside falconing.  The work is filled with infinitesimal details, but my favorite parts are the capering jester (who has somehow become entangled with a tree as he brandishes his grotesque marotte) and the opulent yet ethereal carriage of Time which, unseen, flies above the procession.  The work was completed sometime around 1510 in Flanders.  Note also the Crakow shoes worn by the foppish noble in shimmering green and scarlet at the right.

Parasite Flounder

Larval Flounder with Parasite (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and colored pencil on paper

The strictures of the world’s new routine have allowed me to finish coloring/inking an ocean-themed drawing I have been working on.  Unfortunately, no matter how I adjust the darkness and the contrast, I can’t get it to look like it does in the real world, so I am afraid that you will have to accept this frustrating digital simulacra (aka the jpeg above).

Broadly speaking, this series of flatfish artwork concern the anthropogenic crisis facing Earth life (particularly life in the oceans, which most people tend to overlook and undervalue), however they are not meant as simple political polemics.  Hopefully, these artworks reflect the ambiguous relationships within life’s innumerable intersecting webs of symbiosis, predation, and parasitism.

Humankind appears directly in this artwork–but symbolically rendered as sea creatures so that we can contemplate our nature at a level of remove.  From left to right, one of these merpeople is the host of a big arrow crab which seems to have stolen his mind (in the manner of a cunning paper octopus hijacking a jellyfish).  The larval flounder is itself being ridden (and skeletonized) by a great hungry caterpillar man thing which has sunk its claw legs deep into the bone.  A lovely merlady plucks away a parasitic frond from a cookie-cutter shark as a shrimpman hunts and a chickenman stands baffled on the ocean bottom.

As we learn more about life we learn how it melds together, works in tandem, and jumps unexpectedly from species to species, or speciates into new forms. I wish I could describe this better, since to my comprehension it seems like the closest thing to a numinous truth we are likely to encounter in a world where gods are made up.  I have abandoned essays to try to portray the sacred and profane ways that lifeforms come together with art.  Let me know what you think, and I will see if I can scan it better.

Plague Doctor Flounder

Plague Doctor Turbot (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019), Ink and Colored Pencil

To celebrate this day of pestilence, world economic collapse, and political discord, here is a plague doctor meticulously sewing a poor maimed flounder back together.  In the background a stitched together heart glows red with life above a lady’s slipper orchid (although a cold frozen heart and a fly also hint that other outcomes are possible, if we don’t get our act together).

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Tonight is the last night of Carnival…tomorrow is Ash Wednesday which begins the ritual austerities of Lent (which means spring is now truly on the way).  I grew up reading eye-popping tales set in Venice during Carnival (or in Medieval France, or New Orleans, or Rio de Janeiro), yet somehow I always miss out on carnival’s over-the-top pageantry and mad frolics.  I blame this on my Methodist upbringing: Protestants conceive of Lent very differently than Catholics! (even fallen Methodists) but maybe I should blame the weird schedule. I am sure there are carnival festivities going on somewhere in Brooklyn right now, but, come on, it is Tuesday night.  I just got home from work: there is no time to put on 50,000 beads and learn a samba routine.

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\Anyway, to capture this strange mixture of temptation, wariness, sin, redemption, and multi-color ultra-spectacle (and as a call-back to yesterday’s rainbow serpent post), I have decided to post pictures of some snake themed carnival floats from around the world/internet.

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The snake is obviously an important carnival animal, and I can see no other interpretation of the reptile other than in its Biblical role as a representative of temptation and sin (which are obviously themselves major components of carnival).  Perhaps the snake’s ribbon morphology is a secondary component (since this is a great shape for floats).  It is worth noting though the the West African religions which syncretized with Christianity to create the vodou faiths of the New World are very snake oriented.  One of the most august Vodou loas is the great fertility/father figure Dumballah, who is represented as a great serene river serpent.  I wonder if  he might be an influence on some of these displays.

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PuppetsUp Parade 2013

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Hopefully these ARE carnival snakes.  As I was looking for them, I kept finding Chinese “Year of the Snake” floats and Saint Patrick’s Day “Get these snakes out of Ireland” snakes (to say nothing of Hindu cobras and Australian snakes of some unknown provenance).  Maybe parade-goers simply love snakes because all parades kind of are snakes at some level.  Or perhaps there is a deeper cultural connection which eludes me on Tuesday night and must be looked into further in snake-themed posts of the future.  In the meantime Happy Shrove Tuesday!  Go eat some colorful cake and start getting ready for a new season!

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The medieval architecture of France includes many of the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture. Thus you are probably asking  yourself, “Were the French a part of the Gothic revival architecture movement of the 19th century?”

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The answer is Oui! Boy were they ever! This is the Chapelle royale de Dreux, the burial place of important members of the House of Bourbon-Orléans (the royal family of France after the revolution).  Its story is interesting.  During the French Revolution, an enraged mob burst desecrated the family chapel of the Duke of Orléans and threw all of the corpses which had been therein interred into a common mass grave at the the Chanoines cemetery of the Collégiale Saint Étienne.  After the revolution was over, the Duke’s daughter arranged for a grand chapel to be built over this new burial site.  Later on, when her son Louis Philippe became King of France, he added substantially to the grand new building which was built to mimic the great ancient structures lost to the revolution.  As a bonus, Alexandre Brogniart, the director of manufacturing for Sèvres porcelain, used his resources to produce huge fired enamel paintings on large panes of glass to go in the chapel.

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Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Prophets (Cimabue, ca. 1290-1300), tempera on wood

Cimabue was the link between Byzantine art and the art of the Renaissance. His use of shaded form and realistic proportion would lead to a sweeping revolution in painting, yet his work maintains the stolid architectural grandeur (and sloe-eyed otherworldliness) of art from the eastern empire.  According to Vasari, Cimabue was Giotto’s master, and although scholars have disputed it based on enigmatic sentences in ancient documents, artists accept it as truth because there is so much of Cimabue in Giotto’s works. This painting originally hung in the Vallombrosians church of Santa Trinita in Florence (Cimabue was a Florentine).

Although the Madonna and Roman-philosopher-attired Baby Jesus (and their bevy of dusky angels with ultramarine/scarlet wings) are quite grand, my favorite part of the composition is the giant strange ivory throne they are seated upon and the Old Testament prophets arrayed along the bottom.  From left to right these are Jeremiah, Abraham, David (see his little crown), and Isaiah.  They are reading and writing in phylacteries and the two prophet prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah are looking up at the messiah, a sight they never beheld, yet beheld before all others.

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We are nearing the darkest time of the year, and I wanted to post some Gothic architecture all lit up with festive lights, but, though I searched and searched, the Gothic Revival mansions of my fantasy just weren’t out there on the internet.  There were some actual Gothic cathedrals from the middle ages which were all lit up with lasers though!  Here is a little holiday gallery.  We’ll see if we can scrape up some better content tomorrow (and let me know if you find a site with Gothic cottages all lit up for Christmas).  Oh! If it Christmas-themed Gothic architecture you need you could always go back in time and check out this Gothic gingerbread post from yesteryear’s Yuletide!

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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.

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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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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