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Flounder Show

Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

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This is the Essen crown. A magnificent crown of gold (alloyed with silver) carved and/or cabochon jewels and natural pearls. It is the oldest surviving lily-formed crown and it has been in the possession of the Essen Cathedral/monastery practically forever. Despite its great beauty and obvious historical interest, I have not written about it because we don’t actually know much about it and because its long existence has been somewhat dull. During the early 20th century scholars speculated that it was the childhood crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, a scion of the Ottonian line which ruled the Holy Roman Empire after the famous Carolingians. The story runs that young Otto gifted the crown to Essen at the end of the 10th century (ca 999 AD) where it was fitted upon the brow of a statue of the Virgin.
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Modern scholarship and careful analysis by historically-minded jewelsmiths have cast doubt on this theory, however, and now it is believed that the crown was made in the early 11th century specifically as a votive crown for the statue of the Virgin. Since it did not represent worldly power (and since it was well-guarded) it passed long uneventful centuries there without lots of murders, thefts, or possession by Jimmy Carter. Even if the history is somewhat dull, the crown is certainly not. It is very lovely to look at and represents an apogee of Saxon goldworking. I hope its appearance (or otherworldly ancient power) moves you even if its story of sitting around a church for 900 years is not necessarily so exciting.

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Today’s post combines the splendor of summer, the loveliness of gardens, and the foreboding beauty of gothic architecture. How can we accomplish such a juxtaposition? By featuring a small gallery of Gothic summerhouses from estate gardens of the great and powerful (mostly in England).
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A summerhouse is a garden feature found in grander gardens than mine! It is a sort of folly building: a small open building in a garden or park where someone can sit during the summer time. Of course great aristocrats of yore had a different idea of what constitutes “small” or “open” than I do, so some of the summer houses in European gardens are practically houses in their own right. Looking at certain examples here makes me realize that for an Earl or Duke, summerhouse probably means “surplus house where you can party with a viscount and 20 retainers.” Still some of these houses are actually on the smaller side and could almost be gazeboes, playhouses, or “cots” (as simple huts were sometimes called).
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My old roommate Jennifer has decamped to the great Smokey Mountains to work remotely for a month and I am told she is doing all of her work from a splendid summerhouse. I wonder if she has something like these. Unfortunately the lords of Wall Street won’t let me out of the building during summer (which is most wise, since I would undoubtedly wander off or start drawing or gardening if not shackled to my workstation). Still one can dream about these beautiful structures and lazing away the golden months on high summer in such opulent magnificence!
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This is the great Gothic window of Milan Cathedral. With its sinuous hypnotic grace, It is an exceedingly beautiful design: the window looks almost alive, like a sessile organism of the deep sea. It is ornate and strong and fragile all at one. The design is not really very characteristic of Italian churches. Because of Milanese politics, a French engineer/designer was, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, to build out the church in the late 14th century. Nicolas added flourishes in the style of Rayonnant Gothic—a French architectural style which emphasized elaborate 2 dimensional patterns. I wish I could go to Milan and look at this, but, um I am too busy doing important things in Brooklyn. Milan will have to wait…
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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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May 22 is World Goth Day! The holiday originated in the United Kingdom in the far distant year of…2009—jeesh, this not exactly Saturnalia we are talking about here. Goth Day does not celebrate ancient Germanic people from southern Sweden, medieval black letters, or elegant architecture based around arches so much as it celebrates the “Goth” subculture of alternative lifestyle devotees who wear severe or fetishitic rock-and-roll outfits (often black or deep red). There tends to be lots of piercings, dramatic make-up, and outre hairstyles in Goth fashion, as well. Wikipedia says the Goth scene originated in England in the early 80s as a sort of offshoot of punk…but come on we already had things like Walpole and Strawberry Hill and movie monsters and Odilon Redon. So I will go ahead and say contemporary Goth subculture seems like an outgrowth of a series of profoundly ancient cultural/aesthetic movements (punk merely being one of the more recent of a long line of progenitors rather than a sui generis single parent).
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Whatever the case, I like Goth fashion, which appeals to my taste for the bizarre, the dramatic, the anachronistic, and the complicated. I probably would have liked it even better when I was a teenager and my favorite color was black, but I was too lost in my own world to notice what other people thought was fashionable back then. According to Professor Internet, there are now all sorts of offshoots and subgenres of “Goth” some of which are quite amazing, ludicrous, or scary. We’ll get back to them another day. Today (World Goth Day!) we are just going to put up some straightforward corsets, boots, and riding cloaks and call it a day. Enjoy the miscellaneous fashions and let me know if you think of a new gothic topic for the coming year. I am starting to run out!

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I had a spring cold yesterday and I didn’t post. I’m feeling much better, but I would still like to finish this wonton soup and go to bed…maybe we’ll talk about politics another day when I am feeling stronger. To tide you over though, here are some more little flounder drawings that I have been making. You may think that because I have not posted any lately, I have stopped floundering, but that is not true…not true at all. I have been floundering at a much greater level.0Untitled-1
So I will let you look these over and see what you think, The one at the top is a psychedelic seventies flounder with sundry luscious fruit. The second flounder is apparently a flounder stealing into the alien undersea garden of love. Is Cupid aiming love’s arrow at the poor fish or is it a fishing spear? His back is studded with radiant jewels, so perhaps he is being hunted for cupidity.
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Finally the last of these three was a Christmas present for my roommate who likes heavy metal. he asked for a black metal flounder–so I obliged him with pirate ships and demon babes and a jet black black ocean where this poor ghost flounder is free to rock out to his heart’s content. Let me know what you think and I’ll feature some more flatfish in the near future!

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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia.  The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world.  If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond.  Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money.  Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).

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Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented.  The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs.  Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come.  Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).

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Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be.  Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well).  To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning.  I wonder where question marks came from.

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(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)

Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument.  Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today).  Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.

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