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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).
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…
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).
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).
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.
(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.
Here is a fresco of the Cumaean Sybil by Andrea de Castagno from his “Series of Illustrious People for the Villa Carducci.” In case you were curious, the other illustrious people were Boccachio, Petrarch, Dante, and Pippo Spano (who was apparently a confidant of of King Sigismund of Hungary). This is sort of a strange group, but the oddest figure is the quasi mythical sybil from ancient Rome. When we have more time to write a , we are going to come back to the Cumaean Sybil. I need to write more about Apollo (a god who has been perplexing me more and more) and the Cumaean Sybil was one of the foremost priestesses of Apollo. In this picture (which dates from around 1450), she is dressed as a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman with a diadem and a regal purple gown. Yet her book, her orator’s pose, and her sharp clever features clearly indicate her status a wise oracle. Del Castagno was something of a sphinx among Florentine artists (all of Vasari’s juiciest details about his life are demonstrably wrong) yet the Cumaean Sybil here looks like she knows something.
Let’s talk about princesses! In the toy industry where I used to work, emphasizing princesses is a way to sell pink plastic drek directly to little girls–and it works really well for that! So much so that a lot of the world’s best entertainment and toy properties are princesses. Yet, I always thought the idea was poorly explored—both its roots and its ramifications. Walt Disney, Charles Perrault, and all of the world’s toy executives just sort of decided that half of the world should share the same alter-ego protagonist and everybody blandly agreed with them. And things have stood thus for multiple generations.
This week, Ferrebeekeeper is going to talk about princesses because the concept is so extraordinarily powerful that we should all think about it and learn from it. At its heart the idea of princesshood is an exquisite and complicated fantasy juxtaposition. A princess represents near absolute power…but so seamlessly wrapped in the trappings of compassion, courtesy, and elegant refinement that the power is virtually invisible. The concept is a socio-political fantasy about the very best way to interact with other people: imagine if almost everyone was your social subordinate (!), but you were really kind and generous to them to such an extent that they didn’t mind. I would totally want to live that way—as a powerful person so lovable that I never had to exert my power! It makes you wonder why boys would ever want to be vampires, Godzilla, or Han Solo (although each of those entities also sort of embodies the same fantasy of being powerful without lots of lawyers, contracts, hired goons, and painful calls about money).
If you listen to NPR and read the New Yorker or suchlike journals, you might recall the “death of men” concept which was en vogue just before the disastrous 2016 election. This idea posited that women are actually more adept at today’s society than men. Nobody is mining things or fighting lions or hosting WWI style events–venues where men allegedly excel (when not being crushed, eaten, or blown up). Whereas women have the sort of soft but firm power which big offices desperately crave. Women are going to university at higher rates than men and rising higher in a society which is based on voluminous rules and carefully crafted double talk.
Nobody has been talking about that “Death of Men” idea lately for some reason. However, reactionary national politics aside, I thought there was something to the idea. Success in today’s world is indeed about PR and plotting rather that discovery and daring. I wonder if princess stories and dolls have something to do with this.
In reality, princesses were not always so genteel or compassionate…nor were they necessarily powerful, in some instances they were closer to the misogynist ideal of a submissive beautiful brood mare in gorgeous gems and finery. And, additionally, a princess who really rules is not an idealized fantasy figure. Somehow queens remain resolutely distant and scary (if not outright crazy and malevolent).
Of course there is another darker side to this. Little girls aren’t really being sold on becoming actual princesses (who are always beheading people and tricking inbred nobles) instead they are sold on being like fairytale princesses who spend lots of money on appearances, luxury goods, and dreams, while always being safely polite and waiting for a prince to come sweep them off their feet. Snow White was so passive that it was a miracle she wasn’t eaten by rabbits! That terrifying evil queen would totally have cut out her heart in the real world!
At any rate it is obvious that the concept of princesshood is absolutely jam packed with all sorts of insane cultural context and we are selling this to whole generations of little girls (and others) who will grow up to inherit the world, not because we have examined or thought about it, but because it sells. Let’s examine some of those stories and myths with a fresh eye and see what we can learn. I was a big fan of the idea that power comes from goodness (which is the moral wellspring of these myths). Come to think of it, I still am a fan of that concept. Maybe by thinking about this we can reawaken the good princess in everyone else’s heart too.
Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year. I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations! As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above). This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way). Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year. For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.
I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard. Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful. I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.
Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia). Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks. Indeed, there might be another metaphor here. We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.
Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb. The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it. I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017. I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you. Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.
One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society. In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era. Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.
Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items. At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.
The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm. Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.
Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops. The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society. The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros. Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…
Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things. In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.
Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful. Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?
Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much. But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!
Our week of dark art continues apace…hopefully you aren’t too overwhelmed by the vistas of beauty and horror…yet…MWAHAHA… Today we feature an image from a living artist, Santiago Caruso, an Argentine illustrator who is well-known for creating unique artworks for horror literature. Gustave Doré and Alfred Kubin have passed on their great reward, but Santiago is very much in the world of the living, so I am just going to post the one sample image above and recommend that you look him up or, better yet, go to his web gallery (so he gets the traffic for himself). The picture above shows the mind as a haunted cabinet of curiosities–a conceit which appeals to me greatly. Among the oddities on display are a cornucopia, a snake skeleton, and a twisted dark duck, but clearly there is more in the cabinet…and more which might be in the cabinet. The Latin epigram is from the great dark masterpiece of silver-aged Roman literature The Golden Ass. Roughly translated, it says “That which nobody knows about almost did not happen.” It makes one wonder what skeletons are in this ghastly closet (as though that was not already the foremost thought in everyone’s head as our ghastly election enters the homestretch). Go check out Santiago’s other work (although some of it is pretty NSFW) and think about the strange curiosities in your mental cabinet…if you dare…MWAHAHAHA.
This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.
Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.
Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?
Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.
Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction. As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops. His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein. His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims. These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed. Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.
After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958. In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).
Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again. Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead. Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.
My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon. The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.
Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism. He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).
Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity. I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below. In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder. Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers. There is plenty more dark art coming