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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…

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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.

One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space.  Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects.  Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.

Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist.  His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery.  The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects.  Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.

The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (M.C. Escher, 1935, wood engraving)

The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”.  The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death.  Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.

Another World (M. C. Escher, 1947, colored woodcut)

The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world.  The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements.  Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity.  Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above.  A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer.  Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea.  Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points.  A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.

Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in.  The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery.  Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.

“Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

Independence Day Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia, a depiction of the celebrations of July 4th 1819, painted in 1819 by John Lewis Krimmel (a German-American immigrant painter active in Pennsylvania during the 1810’s.)

A Cartoon Depicting 4th of July Celebrations in 1837 (with Strong Beverages and Speechifyin’)

The Cover of Harper’s Magazine on the Fourth of July of 1865 (just after the Civil War ended)

1876 Picture of the Centennial Celebration of the Fourth of July. Beautifully engraved image titled,” The Glorious Day We Celebrate,” drawn by Thomas Worth from Harper ’s Weekly.

July 4th, 1905 in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota

Watching Fireworks on the Fourth: Coney Island, 1962

New York Harbor: Fourth of July, 1976

Army Camp Joyce Afghanistan with a historic American flag flown there on July 4th, 2007

Fireworks on the Hudson River, New York, New York, 2009

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