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Saul with his Servants at the Fortune-teller of Endor (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657, bistre ink on paper)

I wrote earlier about sepia ink, the beautiful drawing and writing medium used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years which was obtained from the ink sacks of cuttlefish.  Was sepia ink also used by the great northern masters for their sketches? Not at all: there was an altogether different source of the beautiful smoky brown inks used by Brueghel, Durer, Lorraine, and Rembrandt (as well as most other German, French, Flemish, Dutch, and English artists) when they sketched from life. The name of the transparent shadowy brown pigment with yellow undertones was bistre and its source was not a mollusk but rather a tree.  Bistre was made with the soot left over from burning beechwood.  The beechwood ash was boiled with water to produce a cheap and superior drawing pigment. Although steel and copper nibs certainly existed, most masters probably sketched with simple reed pens or goose quills (waterfowl were generally agreed to provide the best drawing quills and geese were most readily available).

Since I have a great fondness for both beech trees, reeds, and geese, it cheers me to think that the great drawings of the old masters were produced with such humble materials. Unfortunately there is no way to set out any sort of comprehensive collection of bistre drawings: the medium was more universally used then anything other than carbon black.  Even a little sampler would involve a wildly eclectic mixture of works from all sorts of drafstmen from wildly different ages and schools. So, instead I am showing three little Rembrandt drawings to represent bistre. I don’t write as much about Rembrandt as I do about other lesser artists (i.e. the rest) because my feelings about his ineffable works are hard to characterize.  The “Lines and Color” blogs summarizes the scope of Rembrandt’s drawings:

Over 1,400 of his drawings survive, conservatively estimated at less than half of what he produced. (For most great artists we’re lucky to have a few dozen. For Vermeer and Franz Hals we have none.) Also unlike most of the great masters, the majority of Rembrandt’s drawings were not done as preparation for paintings, and very few were signed as pieces to be presented to friends or patrons. Most of his enormous outpouring of drawings were apparently done for himself, as visual record of his life and experience or simply for the joy in the act of drawing.

The multitude of subjects encompassed in 1,400 drawings provides a comprehensive overview of life in seventeenth century Holland (which was one of the focal points of the first wave of true globalism).  Out of the murky brown ink washes emerge an endless parade of long-vanished people, places, and things. The figures work, play, and struggle in cities manufactured of hasty brown lines under brown clouds beside an ink wash ocean (over which inky ships carried the spices of the old world and the furs from the new). Magicians scheme, children squall, and captive lions recline.  It is my favorite alchemy. Rembrandt gives us an entire world crafted out of water and beechwood ash.

Lion Resting, Turned to the Left (Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1650-52, ink on paper)

Journey of the Magi (Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461, fresco)

One of the metaphors commonly used to describe the entirety of humankind is the image of a parade. We hear it all the time and hardly think about it: the parade of nations, the march of progress, the triumph of man….I think it is a good image to hold in one’s head when thinking about people taken as a collective entity (and despite our pretensions of self-sufficiency, these days we are very much a super organism like a clonal colony or a hive of army ants).

Here’s how I picture it.

Imagine a new frontier (be it a virgin land, outer space, a scientific breakthrough, a manufacturing notion…anything).  Out there today are theoreticians and dreamers who are trying to envision a way to use new resources and new ideas.  Then suddenly someone has an epiphany based on a half-heard sentence, or a daydream, or a happy column of numbers and the true parade commences.  First come the explorers—robotic probes, Ponce de Leon, bathyspheres, runners-of-the-woods, and lonely obsessive men in labcoats.  Next are the early adapters: hipsters, the curious, the desperate, and the visionaries.  The progress begins to swell as politicians, business leaders, and media stars proceed past. Upon the backs and shoulders of the multitude, the great and the mighty are carried like juggernauts as ticker tape falls down around them and they preen on top of gilded palanquins.  Soldiers and legionnaires ride by frowning in their glittering armor.  The middle class pass by in sensible cars and comfortable shoes holding the hands of children with happy smiling faces.

Next come rank upon rank of the underemployed and the working poor. They are struggling to get along beneath the yellow checks cashed signs and the shadow of the workhouse. Finally at the back of the parade are the old and the sick.  The diseased and the lost are laboring to keep up.  The wounded conscript is lying in the muck barely crawling forward as the parade leaves him further and further behind.  A senile nonagenarian sits down in a rocking chair and never gets up.

And behind us all there is the detritus of our once great endeavors.  The landscape is strewn with rubbish and cast-offs.  A great winding pathway is built of garbage from gum wrappers to whale bone corsets to smashed bronze cannons to gnawed mammoth bones.  Along the empty road there are old cities waning away to irrelevance and there are cities entirely lost—burned, abandoned, or buried in the sand–going back to ancient Eridu itself.  And there is an endless trail of corpses slowly returning to the mud.

Ultimately the trail leads back to the dry highlands of eastern Africa, but where the parade is going is anyone’s guess.  Picture it in your head dear reader.  Smile and wave while the golden light shines on you and the horns play impossibly beautiful music tinged with sadness…

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