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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.

Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.

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Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?

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Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist.  His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous).  Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower.  I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan.  Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Richard Ling

The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish.  Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds).  Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays.  Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent).  Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans.  Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species.  Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs:  for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.

Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish!  Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays.  Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him.  They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs.  Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.

Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once.  Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers.  When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!

Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population.  Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.

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