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So it is the end of another year, and it is time to write the post which I always put off again and again…right up until the last day of the year–which is to say I still need to write the year-end obituaries. Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall that the obituaries here are obituaries for those departed who meant a lot to me–so if you want to know about queens, popes, soccer guys, rappers, or whatever, you will probably have to look elsewhere. For example, last year, I only wrote about my grandfather, an international master operative who battled against Soviet and Chinese dirty tricks in Africa and Southeast Asia throughout the middle of the 20th century. These days, everyone rolls their eyes about the worldwide cloak-and-dagger proxy wars by means of which the Cold War was fought, but, please note that as soon as grandpa was dead (and his ilk out of power), Russia formed an alliance with China and attacked Europe, so I tend to think it all WAS pretty necessary, no matter what the anti-American apologists say.

Grandpa taught me how to take stock of the world and look at art (which he avidly collected), but for more specific lessons in world history and painting, I turned to a generation of teachers and masters who are now also passing away. And so it is with great sadness that I write about two of my illustrious teachers who died in 2022.

Walter Kaegi Abroad (a professor unafraid of travel)

Walter Emil Kaegi, (1937 – 2022) was one of my favorite history professors from college (along with the late, great Emmet Larkin). Kaegi was a professor of Byzantine history, a broad subject which he approached with polymath intensity from all sides. In some respects, Byzantine history is regarded as the story of one thousand years of precipitous and ineluctable decline. Kaegi, however, remembered that history does not seem inevitable to those leading it. His multi-faceted view of the Byzantines was indeed filled with trademark battles, religious controversies, and palace intrigue, but he also added the trade, farming, technology, music, poetry, and ecology missing from the work of great Byzantinists of yore. Kaegi was a scholar’s scholar who knew Latin, Greek, and Aramaic just as well as English, but also learned French, German, and Russian so he could read the works of other scholars. Speaking of Russian, the professor always wore a hilarious heavy Russian hat which we bare-headed undergrads laughed at in the bitter Chicago winters (which illustrates that comedy, like history affords multiple vantage points on what is actually the truth).

Although history scholars like to speak of him like he was Gibbon, Kaegi was definitely not Gibbon. He instead synthesized some insights into the long fall of the Roman Empire from new resources–particularly archaeological/geological ones. Whereas most historians fixate solely on the doings of emperors, courtiers, bishops, and generals, Kaegi came to the conclusion that a combination of climate change, agricultural collapse, and religious change was driving events to a heretofore unappreciated extent (an insight worth remembering when eyeing the events of the present).

Of course he didn’t paint a self portrait, so here is a photograph of Ron Sherr

My other teacher who passed away last year will probably not be remembered foremost as a teacher–since he was actually an artist first. Ronald Sherr (1952-2022) was a brilliant portrait-painter who studied with Daniel E. Greene, Harvey Dinnerstein, and Burton Silverman before going on to paint America’s leading politicians, soldiers, and business leaders (and win all sorts or awards and accolades chronicled elsewhere). Since he rubbed shoulders with the mighty (or at least painted those mighty shoulders) he is liable to be incorporated as part of this era’s political zeitgeist. Indeed, in the recent headlines about former house-speaker Boehner crying when Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait was unveiled, CNN and the NYTimes neglected to dwell on the fact that Ron had painted the official portrait of both speakers!

Portrait of General Colin Powell (Ronald Sherr, 2012) Oil on canvas

Yet world-renowned clients was not what made Ron important as an artist. Ron was an artistic anachronism of sorts–he painted beautiful realistic portraits which looked like they had some piece of the living subject inside of them. His real method for obtaining these incredible results was not some trick or secret tool, but constant practice and stringent self-criticism. Ron’s artistic hero was Jon Singer Sargent who combined the unparalleled draftmanship of the Old Masters with the realistic color and focus of the impressionists. Ron likewise used this combination and it is what he tried to teach his students. We all remember that during our first year painting he would mostly ask seemingly obvious questions like “Is the head you have painted bigger or smaller than the model’s actual head? Is the torso you have painted more yellow or less yellow than the model’s actual torso?”

Our utter inability to answer these questions (at first) reveals part of why it is hard to teach painting. A great teacher must teach looking and comparing first….and then second and then last. Unless you can look at a subject with fresh eyes and regard your own efforts honestly, true realism will forever remain out of your reach.

Speaking of which I have not been painting realistically! Nor have I been applying the lessons of Byzantine history to the Byzantine circus factions of today. I worry that I have dishonored my amazing teachers by not making use of what they worked so hard to teach me. Now, thanks to time’s one way arrow and the nature of mortal existence, we no longer have the real masters. All that is left is the hazy memory of their teachings…although, come to think of it, here I am on a Saturday night (on New Year’s Eve no less) trying still to understand their teachings and make use of such learning to explain the world to others. Keep asking questions! Keep comparing. Keep striving for greater honesty. This is what I hear in my head as I set down the obituarist’s pen and reach again for the artist’s brush.

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Doomscrolling (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

Happy Halloween! As a special inktober treat for the special day, here is another little allegorical ink drawing of our times featuring strange orchid bishops sheltering in their Romanesque monasteries. The churchmen (who do not seem especially holy or worthwhile) interact with their doomed milieu through their little handheld personal communication devices. Meanwhile the haunted world outside is subject to dragon attack, volcanic eruption, war, and doom.

As ever, the strip of nature in the foreground is the true key to the meaning of the composition.

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.

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