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skeleton working

Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

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It has been a while since we had a post celebrating all things Gothic.  Last week’s post about the Yellow Emperor has reminded me of the unsettling relationship which we all have with mirrors (which are so lifelife and yet so empty and which always feature our own aging countenances staring at us with mute appeal).  I wondered if I could find some beautiful ornamental Gothic mirrors to put up in a little gallery.  Boy howdy! There  were a lot to chose from.  Here is a little sampling:

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Of course these mirrors have the beauty of Gothic style, but they lack the disturbing simulacra of life which real mirrors furnish.  You will have to imagine your own face in them.  Or you could head over to your nearest foreboding manor to see if you can find one of these beauties underneath a big gray dusty sheet.  Or I guess you just buy them: they are mostly for sale on the internet, which is maybe the most disturbing thing of all….

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The Mohonk Mountain House looms over Mohonk Lake

The Mohonk Mountain House looms over Mohonk Lake


The Mohonk Mountain House is a monstrous Victorian castle built between 1879 and 1910 on Lake Mohonk in upstate New York. I was there this weekend to attend my friends’ wedding in the sprawling gardens, and I was forcefully struck by the Ghormenghast grandeur of the house and properties which are simultaneously beautiful and cheerful yet exude a haunting wistfulness.
Mohonk Mountain House Gardens

Mohonk Mountain House Gardens


Located just beyond the southern boundary of the Catskills, the hotel features multiple ornate turrets and towers festooned with finials and oddly shaped weather vanes (squids maybe?). The inside is a baffling labyrinth of hallways, sitting rooms, libraries, and porches. Outside, numerous rustic gazebos and folly buildings are spread through gorgeous gardens and vertiginous meadow rambles. Beyond the hotel, lovely forests stretch up into the mountains or down into the spooky wooded fens which feed the mighty Hudson.
A fen (or carr, or tarn, or bog?) by New Paltz, New York

A fen (or carr, or tarn, or bog?) by New Paltz, New York

Speaking of spooky, the hotel and the surrounding hills have amassed all sorts of reports concerning specters of varying temperaments and classes, from giggling children, to poltergeists, to wispy flames, to lurking drown victims, to dark toothy shadows in the hedge maze: the Mohonk seems to have every sort of ghost story.

Mohonk Mountain House (photo by cindy from rPhotosOnline.com)

Mohonk Mountain House (photo by cindy from rPhotosOnline.com)

It is said that a young, poor Stephen King visited the house and that shadows of the building linger in The Shining, The Regulators, and The Talisman. The Mohonk was also used as the set for the Victorian Sanitarium in the movie The Road to Wellville.
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Apparently there were once a great many lumbering Victorian edifices like the Mohonk spread through America, but almost all of them have now burnt down. The Smiley brothers, who constructed the building, were early advocates of safety and environmental awareness, so their huge flammable heap was equipped with all sorts of sprinklers and fire hoses. We should probably feel that the big burned-up spots where the other hotels used to be are haunted and celebrate the lovely Mohonk as the safest and least disaster-prone resort of its era.

Hooray for Safety!

Hooray for Safety!

Bluebells in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor.  Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light.  They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow.  In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue.  If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows.  At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.

Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.

Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore.  Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.

Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead.  Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous.  If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).

Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday  items.  The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.

Portrait of a Woman (Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt, 1628)

Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests.  Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time.  Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

Woodmont Mansion outside Philadelphia (designed by William Price in 1891)

In an earlier post I wrote about exquisite tiny gothic revival cottages. There is of course a different side to the gothic home—giant gothic houses. In the continuing spirit of Halloween and haunted houses, here is a gallery of large beautiful creepy gothic residences.  Wherever possible I have tried to give their name and location, but evidently there are more big gothic mansions than can be easily kept track of.  Just imagine these beautiful houses in the moonlight with a few half-seen figures lurking behind the curtains (and maybe a shaggy shape or two looming behind the topiaries) and you will soon be in a perfect mood for October.

Margam Castle, Port Talbot, Wales, (Designed in 1830 by thomas Hopper)

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion (1859, Germantown PA--just outside Philadelphia)

Roseland Mansion, Woodstock CT

Kingscote Mansion, Rhode Island

Oakley Court (Berkshire, England, 1859)

Gothic mansion in Middletown, Ohio

Bradwell Grove (Oxfordshire, England)

Vasalemma Manor (Hungary)

Toddington Manor (Gloucestershire, England, 1819)

Reynolds Mansion (Bellefonte, PA)

In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture).  Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.

Abtei im Eichwald (Caspar David Friedrich, 1810, oil on canvas)

Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes.  Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether).  By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence.  He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War.  Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch.  Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.

Huenengrab im Schnee (Caspar David Friedrich, 1807, oil on canvas)

Friedrich came back to this theme again and again.  Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald.  The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees.  The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation.  Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness.  Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.

The Bailey Fountain (beautifully photographed with the arch behind it by Wally Gobetz)

I love fountains and my home, New York City, is an excellent place to witness all manner of lovely ornamental waterworks.  No doubt other bloggers have extolled Manhattan’s many famous fountains, so I thought I would briefly write about my favorite fountain in Brooklyn, the Bailey Fountain, which is located at Grand Army Plaza at the north end of Prospect Park.  The fountain lies beyond the huge triumphal arch which celebrates the victorious conclusion of the American Civil War.  Both fountain and arch lie on a traffic island surrounded at all times by dangerous rivers of vehicles.

Wisdom and Felicity form the Bailey Fountain (another fine photo by Wally Gobetz)

The Bailey Fountain was conceived of during the late nineteen twenties but it was built in 1932.  The tension between these two very different eras is noticeable in the ferocity and severity of the classical figures.  The fountain seems to be an allegory of abundance however the individual figures look like they instead portray greed, abandon, and resignation. The fountain is the work of architect Edgerton Swarthout and the bronze sculptures were crafted by Eugene Savage. I think the final work might transcend what either had initially intended.

The Bailey Fountain (photo from “Tugster: a Waterblog”)

Bailey fountain portrays a pair of magnificent bronze nudes standing on the deck of a ship. The two respectively represent wisdom and felicity.  I assume the man is wisdom and the woman is felicity, but it is not easy to tell because she does not look happy and he does not look wise.  Although they both look powerful the figures seem wan and resigned.  Additionally, although they are connected, their backs are forever turned to each other. A besotted Nerues, the “old man of the sea” sprawls on the prow as grim Tritons sound horns and writhe on both sides of the boat.  Strange frog and fish faces spew white water around the tormented figures.  The boat and its inhabitants represent humankind and the figures in the water represent chance and the forces of nature.  When contemplating the fountain it is easy to pitch your mind back to the time of the great depression and see Nereus and his fierce watery compatriots as the unquenchable greed, panic, and other raw group passions which spawned the hardships of that era.

FFigure of King Neptune from the Bailey Fountain (www.nyc-architecture.com)

The Bailey fountain replaced a bizarre Victorian electric water show which was the rainbow-colored high-pressured wonder of its time (but which did not hold up well since it combined early electrical technology, 19th century plumbing, and Brooklyn winters).  I first saw the Bailey fountain in the mid-nineties when it was broken and dry: large portions of the work were painted the same aqua blue as swimming pools.  The plaza seemed deserted except for the eternal traffic, the sinister vine covered trees, and a huge tribe of rats.  Great hunks of granite pavement had been broken apart by frost heave (or some other urban force) and melancholy pervaded the scene.  A lone homeless person sidled up and sadly informed me that the fountain was haunted and, in the lugubrious twilight, I half believed him.  Today, however, the fountain has been restored, and you can contemplate its enigmatic meaning in a much more pleasant surrounding.

Bronze triton from the Bailey Fountain (photo from “Tugster: a Water Blog”)

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