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9,000 year old Neolithic limestone mask found in the Judean desert

We are coming up to Halloween and, as always, we will have a special week of horrifying posts concerning a theme topic (like flaying, the undead, or the monstrous brood of Echidna).  Before we get there, though, let’s take a peak back through time to look at some of the other faces that our forbears decided to put on in the ages before “Joker” or “It”.  The greatest masks are astonishing sculptures, but they were more, too–masks lay at the crux of ancient cults and ancient drama.  We will never truly know what the makers of that first mask up there were doing with it 9000 years ago (human sacrifice?), nor will we know what the Etruscans wanted with their Charun-like mask (human sacrifice?).  We truly can’t know what the mysterious Moche wanted with their mostrous mask (human sacrifice?), and sadly, I couldn’t find out about the Bornean & Congolese masks.  Yet on a deeper level we do know: our hearts tell us what each of these masks is about as surely as we can read a line of emoticons on a phone or know to jump away from a striking cobra.  Some things are instinctual even for humans.  Although I am sure an ethnologist would chide me, it is hard not to look through the empty eyes of masks, both sacred and profane, and see the familiar dark places always within the human heart.

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Borneo Mask Indai-Guru Mask Borneo, Iban Dayak

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Kumu Mask: Congo/Central Africa

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Etruscan mask in Archeology Museum in Cagliari.

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Moche Mask, Peru, 6th-7th century AD, Silvered copper, shell

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Today we present a seasonally appropriate earthtone blast from the past–a color which was once everywhere and is now nowhere at all.  I am talking about the go-to kitchen appliance color of the 1970s, “harvest gold” a sort of warm brownish golden ochre.  I remember seeing so many refrigerators, ovens, sinks, and toilets that were this color when I was a child that I sort of thought it was some fundamental feature of home fixtures.  Of course, harvest gold, wasn’t just in the kitchen and then the bathroom, all sorts of other items of fundamental importance to society came in this same shade–turtlenecks, shag carpet, macrame, Dodge Darts, hotpants…you name it (this is to say nothing of things which were, are, and always will be this deep yellow like dead corn fields, lions, broken urinals, used cigarette filters, and mustard, mustard, MUSTARD!).  More than rust brown, tangerine orange, or even avocado, this was the trademark color of the seventies.

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Now, if you had asked me about this color in the 80s, 90s, 00s, or even the early teens, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it is a hideous afront to civilized ideals of beauty and then made some rude remarks about malaise, mustard, and moustaches.  But is that really true?

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Like all earth hues, this dark yellow suffers because there are lots of earthy things which have the same color, but, likewise there are many beautiful living things that are harvest gold (maybe you noticed lions hiding in the comic list in the first paragraph).  There are famously beautiful people who have hair this color. Maize and wheat are both this color (it’s called harvest gold for a reason) as is the element gold which is known to have a certain cachet.

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So if there was nothing inherent to the seventies or harvest gold which brought the two together, what happened? What forces caused this color to become so famous for a decade and then so infamous for decades?  I would argue that it was marketers trying to sell things to people that made it famous.  It was people copying other people that made the color super famous and then it was everyone overreacting to that overreaction which made the color infamous and toxic.  This is a troubling cycle because it doesn’t just apply to harvest gold, it kind of applies to everything that people get really involved with.  It makes you wonder which of the things that are everywhere around us right now are harvest gold.  Where will they be in 40 years?

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As our republic shakes apart from corruption, incompetence, cowardice, and naked lust for power, I keep thinking about Gaius Sallustius Crispus AKA Sallust, a Roman politician who lived through the fall of the Republic.  Although classicists rhapsodize about Sallust’s political (and stylistic foe) Cicero, I am no Classics Major. I studied history, so Sallust, the moralizing historian, interests me more than Cicero, the supremely self-satisfied orator.  Sallust could certainly turn a phrase himself though.  My favorite zinger from him is this jewel: “Those most moved to tears by every word of a preacher are generally weak and a rascal when the feelings evaporate.”

At any rate Sallust was a populare…which is to say that, although he was born in an aristocratic family, he sought the support (and broadly advocated for the welfare) of the plebiscite.  As a youth, Sallust was a famous sybarite known for excesses of sensual depravity, but he became famously moral and censorious later in life.  This strikes me as humorous on many levels, but particularly because the high point of his political career was his term as governor of Africa Nova (what is today the coastal portion of Algeria and parts of Morocco and Tunisia).  To quote Wikipedia “As governor he committed such oppression and extortion that only Caesar’s influence enabled him to escape condemnation.”  Hahahaha…so much for all of that talk of ascetic virtue and the excesses of aristocracy.

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At any rate, what really interests me about Sallust is what he did with the stolen wealth of North Africa…which he used to build a timelessly famous garden in northeast Rome between the Pincian and Quirinal hills.  The Horti Sallustiani “Gardens of Sallust” contained a temple to Venus, a vast portico, and an array of beautiful and famous sculptures–some of which have survived or been unearthed and are among the finest examples of Roman art.  Here is a little gallery of the most famous pieces.  As you can immediately see, they have had an enormous impact on western sculpture.

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“The Dying Gaul”(A Roman copy of the lost Greek original)

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“The Borghese Vase” excavated from the site of the gardens of Sallust in 1566. Napoleon bought it from his brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in 1808

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The Ludovisi Throne, an enormous chair of contested origin which was discovered at the site of the Gardens of Sallust in 1887

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An aulos player on the wing of the Ludovisi Throne

The Gardens of Sallust passed to the author’s grand nephew and then became the property of the Roman emperors who kept them opened as a public amenity and added many features across a span of four centuries!  Even today, some of the original buildings and features are still extant.

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After four centuries, the gardens enter history one more time–or history entered them.  When the Goths sacked Rome it was still walled and heavily defended.  Alaric’s men laid siege to the eternal city three times.  The first two times, they were rebuffed by walls, defenders, and shrewd political guile, but the third time they gained access to the city through the Salarian Gate…which opened into the Horti Sallustiani.  Imagine the barbarians among the mausoleums, sarcophagi, and funereal urns outside the city, and then, by treachery or by Germanic ingenuity somehow, after 800 years they were within Rome itself among the pleasure pavilions and flowers and ornamental trees of the Gardens of Sallust.

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Here is one of those peculiar stories about a crown which exemplifies why crowns are interesting in the first place.  Back in 1998, Sirak Asfaw, a Dutch civil servant (who was born in Ethiopia but fled to the Netherlands in the 1970s) was hosting a houseguest from Ethiopia.  The mysterious guest had an even more mysterious case which seemed to contain a shimmering gold object.  In accordance with fairy tale rules, Asfaw opened up the case and discovered a glittering golden crown inside.

Well…actually the crown was made of some lesser metal covered with gilding.  Asfaw cast the houseguest out of his home and has been hiding the stolen crown there for the past 21 years.  Based on the crown’s shape and on the saints and religious figures which adorn it, the piece is a liturgical crown used in Orthodox Christian ceremonies. A Dutch investigator found a picture of the crown (below) being worn by a prelate back in 1993. Apparently the headress originated the village of Cheleqot, 75 miles from the border with Eritrea, but was stolen in the mid to late nineties.

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Now that the crown has resurfaced, it is heading back to Ethiopia, but it is unclear if it will go the national museum or to a private owner.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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Let’s talk about the most difficult lesson I encountered in class in grade school. To be honest, I feel like I never really mastered it…or perhaps the lesson is still ongoing.  It might not just be me…

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“These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Although I had no natural affection for numbers, I was always successful at middle school because I read everything insatiably and yet still wanted to know more about existence.  School isn’t really set up to sate this desire (except for the IB program, which is amazing and would solve all of America’s problems in a generation if only it were adopted everywhere).  Sadly, success at school generally involves the same sort of things which bring workplace success: showing up on time, giving people the answers which they want to hear, and completing tedious busy-work tasks.   But, back then, I was competent enough at doing those things, because I knew it was mission critical to getting into a good college–which was the ultimate culmination of existence.

All of that is backstory for explaining the most difficult lesson I ever had in grade school. It is one which I still struggle with, because it involves some paradoxes at the heart of knowledge, meaning, and success.  It also bears on life’s true lessons (the fact that I was a bookish twerp lacking popular esteem was probably the true lesson of middle school, but it was extracurricular, whereas this particular failure was enshrined in a report card). Back in the 1980s I had a blithesome free-spirited art teacher.  She was a good art teacher and I still recall the assignments she gave (copying a bird exactly by means of a grid; making a random squiggle and then expanding it to be a drawing; watercolor on a wet paper; exactly copying a piece of money).  Her opinion was also valuable to me, as I am sure any good student (or 15-year-old boy with a pretty teacher) will understand.

Now I worked harder in art class than at any class because I loved it, but a lot of students regarded it as a sort of free period where they could chat, flirt, and maybe doodle a bit if they felt like it. Back in those days I was still smart and hard-working. At the end of the semester, it was time for grades, and the teacher gave us a last strange assignment: give yourself the grade which you feel is appropriate.  Now I was a 15 year old lad, but I had read enough fables to recognize a trap. “This must be a lesson in how to behave with modest decorum!” I gave myself a B plus, because, although I tried extremely hard (much harder than the louts who spent every class socializing), and although my drawings were better than most everyone else’s, I had never succeeded at the level which I wanted.  I could see every feather out of place on the sea eagle I drew (and the overworked beak with an unsatisfactory little hook).  I can still see that sea eagle, damnit.

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The oafs (who didn’t even complete the art assignments!) naturally gave themselves perfect marks.  I assumed that the degree to which I had tried (which was substantial) and my abilities as compared to my classmates (also substantial) would be recognized by the teacher who would correct everything into a familiar bell curve.  This was an unwarranted assumption.

The final report card revealed that the teacher gave us all the same grade we had given ourselves.  The teacher said: “art is about what you think of yourself!” My horrifying B+ became a finalized part of my permanent record! The oafs all got A pluses which they are probably still savoring (in workcamp, prison, General Electric, or the White House) to this very day.

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Anyway, I survived that 9th grade “B” in art class.  Thanks to my parents’ profound generosity and to my love for reading and writing (which was probably also a gift from my parents), I ultimately got out of school with a “golden ticket,” a degree with general honors from the University of Chicago!  Of course, instead of becoming a crooked hedge fund manager and basking in the world’s envy, I ripped up my ticket and I live as an insolvent artist.

“Art is what you think about yourself.” It is a terrible definition of art.  Yet it somehow passes muster in New York’s contemporary art scene which is more self-involved than a Kanye West song.  I have tried to master that sort of pure self-involvement (just look at this essay), yet I still can’t think of art as merely a solipsistic musing on self-identity (nor as a badge of hierarchical status).

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Success in America is defined as making a huge amount of money.  It is humorous how often people cite this completely inaccurate definition to explain things: “Oh it was my job” or “We made a great deal of money” as though this has anything to do with wisdom or knowledge or what is useful or right.  Society is having a great deal of trouble comprehending what is wise, useful, and right. I blame our education system (though perhaps I should instead blame artists…or myself).

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Last week, the world met Bing Dwen Dwen, the official mascot of the 2022 Winter Olympics.  He is one cute winter sports panda!  I think the hosts of the upcoming winter Olympics did a fine job selecting him, however, when I wrote that post, I shamefully overlooked his companion mascot!  At top up there is Shuey Rhon Rhon, a sentient lantern child who  represents the 2022 Paralympic Games.  According to the IOC press release “the name signifies warmth, friendship, courage and perseverance.”

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A panda and a lantern may not seem like the world’s most natural mashup, yet they really are both emblematic of Chinese culture without being quite so nationalistic as classic 80s mascots like Misha the Bear and Sam the Eagle, who always seemed a bit like he was about to narrate how a bill becomes a law (“it passes the house and then is killed by Mitch McConnell…Screeee!”)  Shui Rhon Rhon also has some nice fancy detailing, although the more I look at her, the more troubled I am by her timid demeanor and lack of a mouth.

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The lack of a mouth might not be completely about social control though.  The 2022 Olympics will take place in mid February…which is also the season of Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Festival), a holiday which celebrates deceased ancestors. Like the Olympics, The Lantern Festival aims to promote reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness.  Yet, because of the holiday’s nature, the lantern girl has a dash of the other world to her (the dancing, flickering flames inside lanterns are famously symbolic of spirit).

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

Boy, this has been an intense week for astronomy news. First there was the largest neutron star ever discovered (it would take an eighth grader nearly an hour to bicycle a distance equivalent to its diameter!), then there was the story about Tabby’s Star gulping down exoplanets and pulverizing a moon (Ferrebeekeeper didn’t post that one, but you can read about it here) and now, today brings reports of another extra-solar mystery object akin to the mysterious Oumuamua which caused such a sensation back in 2017.

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C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) in the middle of the image: Note the faint tail!

Back in August 30, 2019, Gennady Borisov, an amateur astronomer from Ukraine, spotted an unknown comet which has been dubbed “C/2019 Q4 (Borisov)”.  Not only is the comet traveling at the blazing speed of  150,000 kilometers per hour (93,000 mph), it also has a hyperbolic orbit (meaning the object is not bound to the solar system) and it is approaching from a strange angle which in skew to the planar disk of the solar system.

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At present the comet is far away from Earth and yet approaching on a path which puts the sun between us and the object (astronomers don’t like pointing their telescopes into the sun for some reason), however the mysterious object should approach as close as Mars at which point we will be able to learn more about it.  Right now all we know is that C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) has a diameter between 2.4 and 15 kilometers (1.5 to 10 miles) and doesn’t seem to be from around here.  Whereas Oumuamua zipped through before we could get a good handle on it, we should have a chance to properly study this comet. Since comets (unlike strange asteroid shards) are volatile, we should be able to get a sense of its composition by studying the makeup of the tail.  Stay tuned for more news about this peculiar object!

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