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Here are three different fluted ewers from medieval China which exemplify Longquan-type celadon. This style of porcelain (or stoneware, if you ascribe to a purely western methodology of ceramics terminology) was abundantly produced in the kilns of Zhejian and Fujian from about 950 AD to 1550 AD. The characteristic blue-green and gray-green colors are the result of iron oxide glazes fired at temperatures around 1250C in a reducing atmosphere (which is to say the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the dragon kilns where they were made).

Longquan Fluted Ewer with Lid, late Southern Song Dynasty

Of course the real point of this post is to appreciate the beauty of these ancient ewers. I particularly like fluted pieces because the elegant vertical lines go so very well with the simple round melon/pumpkin shapes. Likewise, the understated green glaze color (along with the fleabites and brown patches of irregular glaze) are particularly suited to this sort of pot. They look like they grew on a magical vine in some immortal’s secret garden! Even the texture–which is perfectly smooth and glossy, yet also has appealing pits, bumps, and micropatterns–seems strangely alive.

These three ewers are arranged from oldest (top) to most recently produced (bottom). The top piece is from the Northern Song Dynasty when the Song emperor controlled both the north and south of China. The middle piece is from the southern Song (when the imperial capital moved to Hangzhou a city not so far from Longquan which was the center of these sorts of crafts).

The last piece is a Yuan piece from the era of Mongol hegemony and seems to have a different feel from the other pieces (so much so, that it is the most questionable of all of the pieces). Yet its gorgeous shape and color mean I must include it. As a final note, it is worth mentioning that part of the beauty of these works is in their utility and strength. They were all built robustly enough that they are here in pristine shape after a thousand tumultuous years of Chinese history. All of them have highly functional and thermodynamically efficient designs which, in the end, are not so different from the modern machine-made English teapot which I use every day. Indeed, considering where tea and porcelain originated, they are all ancestors of my teapot

Longquan Pumpkin Shaped Ewere Yuan Dynasty

Sooo…since I am back to writing, I would like to start blogging about politics again. Unfortunately, continuing political stalemate is causing the rapid decline and failure of the United States of America. In such circumstances, it is enormously frustrating to write, talk, or think about politics. I can’t even successfully agree with the people I know I agree with, because I am so angry and dissatisfied! I have a feeling I am not the only person in such emotional straits!

Therefore to ease my way back in to the subject, I would like to write a furious jeremiad about the fundamental cause of our trouble–stalemate in Congress–and address where that fatal deadlock comes from. As ever, feel free to disagree or push back in the comments below (although I am less respectful of the fascist Republican party than I was a few years ago, when their plans to destroy the nation, replace our democracy with a theocratic dictatorship, and throw down everything we have built were only beginning to yield dark fruit).

Most good-hearted Americans currently look at the bitter strife, anger, and divisiveness of the political arena, and logically, they blame politicians. It is like if you walked into a bar fight, you wouldn’t bother figuring out who started it, you would just blame drunks in general and leave hastily before someone smashed your head. Unfortunately, that general self-preservation strategy is dead wrong for the fight which is going on in today’s America. The centrists’ cry that “they are all equally bad” is not warranted. Our founding fathers designed the legislative houses of Congress to be the center of the democracy with the power of the purse, the power to make war, the power to regulate interstate commerce, and of course the power to make and unmake laws. Congress is failing to do these things and we are only barely able to avert outright crisis by the unsuitable vehicle of executive power, or, worse, judicial fiat (whereby unelected and immoral rapists, dolts, and savages in black robes strip away all of our rights and return society to the middle ages).

The reason Congress is unable to address the crises of our time is indeed because the two parties have divergent views and desires…but the parties have always wanted different things. In the past, they could compromise. Why can’t they do so now? The obvious answers–political polarization, and gerrymandering (where politicians pick out their own voters and assure their easy re-election) are the right answers, but they too are symptoms of the fundamental disease. The disease is a sort of autoimmune condition–one party (the Republican one) has begun to attack government itself.

Since at least the time of Reagan, Republicans have been making war on the idea of government. It is a very cynical ploy (and an unexpected one, since Republican executives, legislators, judges, apparatchiks, etc. are themselves the government, or at least a big block of it). But it turns out to be a highly effective strategy. Here is how it works: When government does not work right, Republicans can say “look! the government doesn’t work right! We are obviously correct. Vote for us!” Then, when they are voted in to power, they can pass enormous tax-cuts for very wealthy people and do absolutely nothing else. This makes very wealthy people support Republicans and ensures that the government works even worse (which is what happens when things are not properly funded and when people who are supposed to do something do not do it).

Of course, sometimes the Democrats manage to win an election (although un-representative and minoritarian features of our system keep conspiring with outright Republican sabotage to make this ever harder), and then the Republicans pull out all of the stops to make sure everything fails and gets blamed on Democrats. Then, when Republicans are back in power there are more tax cuts for the enormously wealthy and more judicial appointments from the Federalist society and the doom loop continues.

For Republican tacticians, stalemate and continuing failure are the point. They are making it happen (with some help from selfish Democrats like Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer). Continuing stalemate gives the Republicans what they want and assures the Republicans will be able to continue moving us away from representative politics and towards one-party rule. Once we get there, they will no doubt rediscover the virtues of the government in the form of jackboots, Jim Crow, and privatizing everything off to the same people who have made our health-care system what it is. So if you say “everyone is equally wrong! Why can’t the parties get along? Politicians are the problem! Government is the problem!” well…that isn’t a neutral or centrist perspective, it is a Republican one. It is actually a clever strategy–unless you wanted to actually live in our country and make progress and have a family and not be a worthless indentured servant to some MBA shithead. If you want such things then government is very much your friend. Indeed, it is your only hope. You need to help people of good conscience make it work as well as possible by electing smart and devoted Democrats who can end the Republican doom loop!

This beautiful earthenware ossuary is a Sogdian piece from the 7th century AD.  It was unearthed from the ruins of ancient Samarkand (in what is today Uzbekistan) and reflects the Zoroastrian faith of the Sogdian traders who flourished along the Silk Road in that era.

Zoroastrians believe that both fire and the earth are sacred, and thus human remains can be neither interred nor cremated.  Instead, corpses are laid out in “houses of silence” open to the heavens above, or otherwise exposed to the hungry creatures of the wasteland.   Once the vultures, jackals, maggots, and other scavengers had finished their repast, the bones were gathered up and placed into an ossuary like this one.

The figures on the front of the box (see detail immediately above) are Mazdaean priests dressed in flowing white robes as they tend the sacred flame burning upon the stepped altar.  The mouths of the priests are covered with “padam”–facemasks which prevent their breath from polluting the sacred flame.  Upon the pyramid-shaped lid are female dancers, each of whom holds plants and strange dance implements.

At the apex of the ossuary is a radiant circle and a crescent–the sun and the moon. Like the dancers, the fire, and the priests, they seem also to be turning into flowers, foliage, and herbs. The whole ossuary is colorless, dry, lifeless, and fire-themed–yet its secret meaning seems to be about greenery, wild dance, and the flowing sensuous lines of life!

The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

The Virgin and Child ‘The Madonna with the Iris'(Workshop of Albrecht Durer, ca. 1500) oil on panel

Today is world pigment day(!), and I would like to celebrate by showcasing kermes red, one of my favorite pigments (sometimes also known as carmine in English). Not only is it a gorgeous shade of deep crimson pink, but explaining its name and the way it was manufactured provides a sort of educational primer on pigments. Also, since this pigment dates back to antiquity, it features in some amazing historical works–particularly as women’s lips, make-up, and dresses. Additionally, the pigment is made from living creatures, so there is a certain horror aspect to it. The only sad aspect to all of this is that I have never used real kermes pigment to paint: it is too expensive and I have always settled on synthetic substitutes.

Kermes scale insects on a branch union

I am saying “kermes red”, but the pigment’s true name is “kermes lake red”. A lake pigment is distinct from a pigment made from ground minerals (like say vermilion) because the dye is precipitated with a “mordant” (a chemical which acts as a binder). Another way of saying this is that lake pigments tend to be organic and are often quite fugitive as well. Kermes are actually nasty little scale insects which parasitically suck the roots of oak trees. The brightest reds are obtained by collecting the female insects with eggs still inside their bodies. Then they are dried, crushed, and bound with mordants! Kermes based inks and paints are beautifully translucent and were perfect for delicate washes. By building up multiple layers or by painting in Kermes atop vermilion, one could obtain gorgeous luminous effects. For example, in this tiny masterpiece by Perugino, note how newly resurrected Jesus is wearing a pink robe–more properly a kermes lake himation, whereas the lesser musicians, mercenaries, and mourners have vermilion pants and hats (well, not that guy in the front right corner, but you understand what I mean). This tiny picture is one of my favorite works in the whole Metropolitan museum, by the way (when they bother to show it).

The Resurrection (Perugino, 1502), oil on panel

Kermes dyes were used in Old Testament times when it was used to produce the scarlet yarn in the curtain of the temple of Solomon as well as various other holy vestments (I probably ought to write a post about this alone to go with the sacred lost blue of Israel post). The method of using these dyes was lost for a time, but seemingly revived in the middle ages when scarlet became the super-expensive pigment of the high aristocracy (and of church cardinals, of course). It was replaced by cochineal from the new world–a similar but even more vivid scale insect (which, for a time, was the second most valuable commodity from the Spanish colonies, after silver). Kermes now is a niche pigment and it has been superseded by all sorts of chemically refined dyes (particularly the quinacridone dyes).

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Every year, Ferrebeekeeper dedicates today’s blog post to the myths and legends of the fair green island. This tradition started back in 2011 with a post about Ireland’s unofficial mascots, the leprechauns (those little magical men did some heavy lifting in popularizing this blog and they are still the second or third most popular post of all time). Subsequent years featured the sad tale of Oisín and Niamh, a description of the dark sky spirits which haunt the night sky, the tale of Daghda’s harp (which is there on the old flag), the myth of the leannán sídhe (a vampire woman who represents life as an artist), and the story of the salmon of wisdom (a metaphorical fish of universal knowledge). These tales are wonderful (and horrible too) but they are all from Ireland’s pre-Christian past, so for this SAINT Patrick’s Day, let’s head to the Christian myths of Ireland.

Now the hagiography of Saint Patrick himself has always struck me as a bit dull (plus, old Patrick was really from England anyway!) however his contemporary, Saint Ciarán of Saigir was a churchman much more in the florid style of ancient Irish myth–and a noted animal lover rather than a persecutor of serpents. Although the details of the lives of (possibly mythological) magical bishops from the dark ages are a bit uncertain, it seems that Ciarán was born in the 5th century as a noble in Osraigh (that link is pretty interesting but also so painfully Irish that I felt like I was drinking Harp beer and listening to a lilting ancient in some stone tavern when I read it). Ciarán’s first miracle occurred when he was a child. A predatory kite swooped down and killed a little songbird sitting on a nest in front of the boy. Ciarán admonished the kite for its cruelty and then breathed life back into the little bird.

Realizing that the compassionate new faith was for him, Ciarán went abroad to learn the ways of the church. After studying Christianity at Tours and then at Rome, young Ciarán returned to Ireland in the 6th century and built a stone hermit’s cell in the woods of Upper Ossory. His first converts were forest creatures who took up the monastic habit upon hearing Ciarán’s sermons, so parts of his hagiography read like Redwall with Brother Badger, um, badgering Lay Brother Fox about the latter’s habit of stealing footwear. His miracles are a bit peculiar as well, and include transforming the water of a well into a potent intoxicant with the taste of honey and performing a magical abortion on a raped nun named Bruinnech (reading between the lines here, this seems like a story of preventing honor killings and stopping an ever-escalating cycle of vengeance before it started, but it is still a strange look for one of “the twelve apostles of Ireland”).

There are other tales of Ciarán’s life which I am leaving out (just as I am leaving out the various monasteries and churches he founded and his episcopal acts), however I will share the story of his death. Ciaran was not beheaded by pagans or crushed by Romans or anything like that–he died from old age surrounded by adoring monks, students, and parishioners (and probably hedgehogs, rabbits, and turtles wearing robes).

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Usually Ferrebeekeeper writes about crowns, but today, as a special treat to celebrate the end of February (which is also Black History month), we are going to write about a throne instead…and this is not just any throne! It is also my favorite visionary art installation [as an aside, I believe it would help to contextualize the problematic nature of monarchy if we called all thrones “visionary art installations”–and it wouldn’t even really be inaccurate]. Anyway, above is the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, by American outsider artist James Hampton which is currently held at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC. Created between 1950 and 1964, the enormous work consists of 180 individual objects hand-crafted out of broken furniture and everyday found objects which were gilded with aluminum and gold foil.

Hampton’s tale is as American as possible, while somehow simultaneously as outsider as possible too. He was born in South Carolina in 1909, the son of a Baptist preacher with the same name. His father, James Hampton Senior was a traveling Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, but he was also a grifter and a ex-convict with a history of time in the chain gang. He abandoned his family and vanished away into the William Faulkner style goings-on of the south during the tumultuous decades of the teens, twenties, and thirties leaving his 4 children and wife to scrape by as well as possible.

After this hard-scrabble upbringing, young James Hampton moved to Washington D.C. where he was a short-order cook during the Depression and was then drafted into The United States Army Air Force during Word War II. He served repairing airstrips in Guam for which he received a Bronze Star. In Guam he also first began building visionary devotional shrines. After the war he moved back to Washington and obtained a job as a janitor at the General Service Administration, where he worked until his death of stomach cancer in 1964. We would probably not remember him at all, except, when he died, his landlord approached his sister about what to do with the contents of the garage which Hampton used as a workspace/devotional area. Hampton had largely kept his artwork hidden from even his tiny circle of friends and family (perhaps he did not even regard it as artwork per se). Only after his death did it come to the world’s attention, along with St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation a religious book which he mostly wrote in a private (and untranslated) tongue.

Hampton’s Christianity was non-sectarian (enough of his writing is in English to inform us that he wisely believed that the doctrinal schisms which characterize organized Christianity detract from the sacred unity of God) and highly mystical. I first saw the throne on a High School Field Trip in the nineties, when its awesome otherworldly glory and strangeness was enough to silence a whole class of 16 year olds (an achievement accomplished by few other cultural masterpieces in the nation’s capital). Its glistening cat-eyes and complex Baroque shapes are characteristic of American dime stores and carnivals of the early 20th century…and yet they also very much of Africa, Polynesia, and the Holy Land as well.

You will have to examine the shrine of your own–as with some of the finest religious art of South East Asia or the Middle Ages, its splendor and complexity initially baffle the eye. However, it is based on Saint John’s New Testament description of the silver and gold throne of God on Judgement Day (Revelations 4). This description includes mention of Christian elders wearing sacred crowns, and these crowns are very much a part of the larger installation, so even if you are lost in the material complexities of James Hampton’s personal devotion, at least there is highly recognizable iconography for the rulers of Earth…and for this blog’s readers too!

A page from “Winter Landscapes and Flowers” (album ca. 1770, Qian Weicheng) ink on silk

Here is a lovely little winter landscape from Qing Dynasty master landscape painter Qian Weicheng (錢維城). Qian was a proponent of the orthodox painting style, and, indeed, we can see that his simple, elegant calligraphic lines emulate the techniques of the Song and Ming artists who preceded him. Although he was perhaps not a master of bravura ink-wash realism to the unearthly degree of Fan Kuan or Guo Xi, Qian brings his own 18th century virtues to the art, and there is a delightful & unaffected simplicity to his work which captures the austere beauty of winter’s bare rocks, leafless trees, and frozen mud. In this little painting, flocks of geese glide through the overcast sky above a branching river which is swollen with melt water. The simplicity of the countryside must have been a dramatic contrast with the opulent splendor of court life in 1774 when this image was dated and inscribed. Of course Qian himself died in 1772, so the inscription and the date were added posthumously by Qian’s greatest fan, the Qianlong Emperor himself!

Qian Weicheng painted over 275 paintings during his time at court and he rose up through the imperial bureaucratic ranks to the exalted position of second-in-command of the Imperial Board of Works. Perhaps you are wondering how it is that Qian came to the capital from his native Jiansu to begin with. Any discussion of dynastic China includes mention of the famous, formidable imperial civil service exams, the great standardized test which was at the center of imperial China’s administrative system. In 1745, Qian came in first place on the exam, an academic feat which brought him to imperial attention and guaranteed his success as a mandarin and as a painter. This path to artistic greatness (acing a standardized test about Confucian principles!) brings up a variety of questions about meritocracy, politics, and aesthetics which we are still wrestling with!

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