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There is Nothing Suspicious About These Glowing Treats in the ocean Depths (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

There is Nothing Suspicious About These Glowing Treats in the ocean Depths (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

Through the dark and improbable marketing magic of the Big Baking industry, today is National Donut Day (or possibly “National Doughnut Day” depending on how classical your tastes in pastry spelling are).  Donuts are sweet snacks usually made of deep-fried flour dough.  The traditional doughnut is ring shaped, probably because that is a very efficient way to make and evenly fry such a pastry (if the cake was a sphere or a disk, there would be uncooked dough in the middle), however there are also rod-shaped doughnuts, crème filled donuts, crullers, bearclaws, and heavens only knows what else!  Donuts have a creation myth wherein a magnificent Dutch sea captain who loved pastries was piloting his galleon through a towering storm.  The mariner was unwilling to let his ship sink and his crew perish, but he was equally unwilling to forgo the pleasure of fried pastries for even one moment, so he stuck the donuts on the ship’s wheel so he could devour them as he faced off against Poseidon.  I say this is a myth because it seems likely that donuts predate the Dutch.  They were probably invented by Sumerians in equally trying but now unknown circumstances.  It’s still a great story though!  I have heard that law enforcement officers have their own secret donut creation myths, but, since I am not a policeman these sacred traditions have never been vouchsafed to me.  Maybe if you ask any of our friends in blue about this, you should be very circumspect…

Not pictured: storm, donuts, fat heroic captain...

Not pictured: storm, donuts, fat heroic captain…

Ferrebeekeeper has an immoderate fascination with toruses which stems from a peculiar combination of aesthetic, mathematical, and mystical factors.  In my personal world of symbolism, the universe itself is a torus (it seems like it might well really be a torus, but our understanding of such matters is incomplete).  The most familiar torus here on our Newtonian scale is the humble–but delicious & multitudinously variable—donut!  So I paint lots of symbolic microcosmic paintings of donuts.  I was amassing a whole wall of them, but I started to sell some so that I don’t have to live on the streets.  Maybe they will be worth a bunch of money someday…. You could do me a huge favor and say exactly that to the art world professionals whom you meet in your life!

...or if you happen to have an art gallery, contact me directly and we'll work something out forthwith!

…or if YOU happen to have an art gallery, contact me directly and we’ll work something out forthwith!

I have already put up photos of some of these doughnut paintings on this blog here and here (to say nothing of the painting of a toroid honey bundt cake which serves to represent the entire blog).  In celebration of National Donut Day, here are two more Wayne Ferrebee original oil paintings (well, digital photographs of the same).  The painting at the top is grandiloquently titled “There is Nothing Suspicious About these Glowing Treats in the Ocean Depths.”  Three magnificent sugary donuts glowing within drift among the happy denizens of the deep ocean.  A friendly anglerfish proffers a funny lure, while a near-eastern ewer drifts toward the ocean bottom.  A glass squid with orange dots scuttles past the scene. In the murky background a passing shadow resolves into another friendly creature of some sort. A cynical & world-wary viewer might interpret the work as some sort of warning about impossible things that are too good to be true, but the enlightened art-lover recognizes it as an evocation of benthic wonders!

Cell Donut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

Cell Donut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

The second donut painting here is a very tiny painting (4 inches by 4 inches–so smaller than the image onscreen) which concerns the micro-world beneath us.  It is appropriately titled “Cell Donut.”  Against a dark magenta background, a courtly mummer performs some sort of dance/pantomime for a paramecium and a clutch of glowing eggs (or possibly cells).  A diagrammatic cell is in the lower right corner with all the color and complexity of a future city.

I took a course in cell-biology one and in the first moments, as the biochemist started writing out the molecular processes of respiration, it hit me that the drama at a cellular level is, if anything, more intense and complicated than the goings on at our familiar human-size frame of reference.  “Cell Donut” is meant to remind us that the real rewards and perils are within us already–for in the microsphere within our bodies, billions of cells are fighting, metabolizing, reproducing, and recycling with maddening vigor and ceaseless action.  Also the tiny donut in the middle of the painting is a classic plain donut…an ideal symbol for national Donut Day (as opposed to some of my other dozens of donut paintings, which can often be quite baroque, phantasmagorical, or strange…or are just straight-up bagels!)

I hope you enjoy these paintings, and I also hope you manage to drop by the bakers to enjoy a well-deserved donut or two!

Note: No matter what I do, or how I try, I cannot get these paintings to display properly!  It is obvious that Word Press hates me and hates my artwork, despite the fact that I have essentially been working for them for free for half a decade.  I’m afraid you’ll have to click on the paintings in order for them not to appear all hideously cropped and mutilated as they look above. [sotto voce] mutter mutter…should have chosen “Blogger”…mutter, curse… “never “Fresh Pressed”… grumble grumble.

Study for "The Voyage of Life: Childhood" (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

Study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

I have been thinking a great deal about beautiful & meaningful allegorical paintings (indeed, you can go to this gallery of my own art and look at the strange seething world of symbolic paintings I have been creating under “Allegories”).  Here is a very lovely painting from the nineteenth century American master Thomas Cole.  This is a study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” the first painting of his magnum opus “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four huge paintings which portray a human life as a river running through the four seasons (I have put the relevant detail from the finished painting at the bottom of this post, but, for reasons unknown, I like the study better)

This is the beginning of life—an angel is launching an infant out of celestial darkness into the world. The little child is frolicking in delight among a fulsome bouquet of spring flowers little aware of the waterfalls, rapids, and sluggish poisonous bends which lie along the great river.  What the painting lacks in symbolic subtly it makes up for with its boundless energy, personality, and immediate glowing exuberance.

Cole was not a pessimist—he viewed life as a dazzling sojourn of pellucid joy.  This is a view which has fallen out of fashion in art (and maybe in larger realms of thought and endeavor), but the jubilant baby in this picture and the tender solicitous angel from suggests that we might want to revisit Cole’s worldview.

Detail from "The Voyage of Life Childhood" (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Detail from “The Voyage of Life Childhood” (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.

Artist's conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

Just in time for the holidays, here’s another “Madonna and Child” painting by Carlos Crivelli, the enigmatic Quattrocento master.  Ferrebeekeeper has already featured two posts about Crivelli including a short biography (which includes just about everything we know about him) and an exquisite painting of Mary Magdalene.  Today we present another Crivelli tempera masterpiece from 1460 which shows Mary holding a pensive baby Jesus as creepy little foreshadowing figures gather round.   Although Mary is not without a certain supercilious beauty, the two central figures are not nearly as fine as in other Crivelli masterpieces.  Standing on his little black velvet pillow like a demagogue orator, Jesus looks downright horrifying (and he also seems suitably appalled at knowing his own fate). The great strength of the painting lies in the supporting cast of corpulent androgynous children brandishing accoutrements of the crucifixion.  The little beings to the right solemnly proffer a crown of thorns and a cross to infant Jesus.  On the left, one child (wearing tiger skin grieves!) holds a fistful of crucifixion nails while his naked playmate grasps a classical column with spidery hands.  Behind him are children with a lance, a bucket of vinegar, and a ladder.  The little lanceman on the left is staring up at an allegorical rooster standing atop capitol.  In the background, on the right, the death of Christ takes place on a distant hill, while at the top, beyond a garland of peaches, pears, cherries, and songbirds, a final pair of putti play divine music on the harp and lute. The suffusion of tiny black pits or holes in the composition was probably not intended by Crivelli (although he did have a fascination with nail wounds), but it adds an extra dimension of entropy, torment, and decay to an already vexing painting.  Once again Crivelli deftly takes traditional religious elements of the passion and arranges them into an allegory which seems to subtly elude the comprehension of the viewer.  Is that Peter’s rooster or is it some lost symbol of 15th century Italy?  Are the childish beings with the implements of Christ’s death a vision of the anguished Christ child, or are they meant to represent us, the viewer, tormentors and torturers of the world who, like ignorant children, don’t even understand what we are doing?

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal.  His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry.  Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams.  Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice.  Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care.  He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love.  Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her.  Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise.  She was dead.  Her spirit had fled away.

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent  from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Then Orpheus went mad with grief.  He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead.  Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned.  Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow.  Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked.  Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips.  The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed.  Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition:  Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld.  Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards.  Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange.  In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him.  He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer.  As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him.  For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld.  All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

The world held no joy for Orpheus.  Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy.  Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang.  Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills.  The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies.  They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus.  His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river.  Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows.  He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest.  Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that).  The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort.  Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness.  Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.

It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal.  Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans.  Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back.  Only art can surmount death.

La Mort d'Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

La Mort d’Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art.  His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity.  His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology.  Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure.  He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.

This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them.  The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

There is no underworld.  It is all made up.  There are no deities there (or probably anywhere).  Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get.  But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us.  We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be.  Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning.   The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).

Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.

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The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head).  Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Today, March 20th 2014, is the first day of spring.  To celebrate, here is an allegorical painting of spring by the baroque master Bartolomeo Guidobono, who spent most of his career painting in northern Italy.  Spring is here personified as a lovely young woman in a simple but elegant gown. A curly-headed nude infant sprawls across her lap and wildflowers spring up at her feet.  Behind the maiden a grove of budding trees recedes into the green distance.  It is a simple and refreshing painting about the relief and happiness of living things as winter fades and the world begins to grow again.  Hooray for spring!

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

The trees are changing color, Halloween is fast approaching, and the day was beautiful—which means today was the perfect time for the annual autumn trip to Greenwood Cemetery, the immense Victorian graveyard at the center of Brooklyn.  As always, I was enthralled by the towering specimen trees, 19th century mausoleums, and the rolling moraine landscape, but, also I was decidedly shocked to find the cemetery was different!  There was a new addition, and for once, it did not require a pile of fresh dug earth, a crowd of mourners, and a diminution of the human family.

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

Instead of a new grave, there was a huge beautiful bright white marble allegorical statue of a nude man standing on top of two writhing mermaids!  What happened to bring this twenty foot Greco-Roman hand-carved titan to the quiet midst of my favorite necropolis?  Well, I looked up the story (i.e. read the extensive plaque), and discovered that the statue was moved because women obtained the right to vote in the United State. Fans of the constitution will note that the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, two years before “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finished by the Piccirilli Brothers (Ferrucio, Attilio, Furio, Horatio, Masanielo and Getulio).  What happened?

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in1923)

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in 1923)

As it turns out, “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is probably the most controversial work of art in New York City’s history (certainly it is the most scandalous to be bought with public money). The statue’s bizarre history involves the way power shifts in a democracy, the changing meaning of symbols, and the greatest constant in art—the artist’s eternal inability to cope with deadlines.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the allegorical work was designed by Frederick MacMonnies to stand in front of City Hall in Manhattan and to represent American politics.  The handsome and robust figure of Civic Virtue stands triumphantly astride two snaky sea goddesses who represent the two great public temptresses of vice and corruption.  However, since the actual marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, were very busy (and artistic creation does not always obey the schedule of small-minded foot-tapping bureaucrats) the statue took a very long time to finish and was delivered years late.

The

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (in Kew Gardens beside Queens Borough Park in 2002)

The statue was finally completed and installed in front of City Hall in 1922, but by then its era had already passed.  Newly empowered women voters hated it for depicting women as semi-human beings who are subordinate, naked, and prostrate at the foot of an armed man (an allegory which seemed all too familiar to them).  Not only was it decried as sexist:  the classical Greco-Roman aesthetic was at odds with the modern new styles of the roaring twenties. Additionally the manly (but diminutive and lumpy) mayor, Figueroa de Laguardia, did not like looking up at the statue’s muscular backside as he (the mayor) stared out over his city from his office.  Together the mayor and the suffragettes exiled the statue to Kew Gardens Park beside Queens Borough Hall where it languished at the center of a fountain for long decades.  However even that was not enough to placate the artwork’s detractors who still demanded that it be moved far away from the center of political power in Queens.  The great women’s rights crusader Anthony Weiner even suggested that it be sold online on Craigslist!  Finally Greenwood cemetery stepped in with a protected public (but not very accessible) space for the statue and with funds for a renovation.  The “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was surreptitiously moved to the cemetery in December of 2012.

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or maybe corruption)

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or possibly corruption)

I can’t help but feel like the suffragettes might have had a point.  Why isn’t civic virtue a lovely & mighty lady like Justice, Temperance, or even Columbia herself.  The statue is magnificently carved and executed, but it also looks like a dark fantasy of mermaid abuse.  Yet its weird history says more than it does about who we are (and who we were). Queens’ loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and I am happy the statue found a pretty home where my fellow statue lovers and I can regard it up close. “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is both great, troubling, and hilarious , however, considering the statue’s provenance—from city hall, to a tertiary borough, to an empty cemetery–perhaps it can also be considered empowering.

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Here is a large painting by contemporary Brooklyn artist Mu Pan.  Pan mixes Chinese and western styles to tell allegorical stories about the fight against authoritarian hegemony.  His complex pictures are filled with characters and objects from wildly different cultures and eras.

The 108 outlaws shown in the painting are the outlaws from Liangshan Marsh—the main characters of “Water Margins” a Ming dynasty era epic which is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.  The outlaws of “Water Margin” are reincarnated versions of heavenly spirits who as humans are unfairly persecuted by the corrupt officials of an incompetent emperor.  Together they form an unbeatable army of martial artists which opposes the crooked government (although due to their leader Song Jiang’s loyal feelings for the throne of heaven, they never overthrow the system).

Detail

Detail

In this painting the outlaws have joined forces with sharks, rays, mermen, kalpas, porpoises, and other water creatures to fight with an immense deathless tylosaurus (a sort of giant mosasaur which lived during the Cretaceous). The writhing dinosaur clearly represents the great leviathan of Chinese central authority. The painting is alive with fantastic details and martial energy, but its title and subject also indicate that it is an unmistakable allusion to China’s most famous book about fighting against an inhumane and broken system. You can check out Mu Pan’s other amazing works (and buy prints) at his online gallery.

Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

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