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Lady on the Horse (Alfred Kubin, 1938, Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper)

Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction.  As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops.  His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein.  His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims.  These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed.  Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.

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After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958.  In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).

 

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The North Pole (Alfred Kubin 1902)

Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again.  Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead.  Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.

 

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The Pond (Alfred kubin, ca. 1905)

My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon.  The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.

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The Egg (Alfred Kubin, 1902)

Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism.  He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).

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The Government (Alfred Kubin)

Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity.  I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below.  In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder.  Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers.  There is plenty more dark art coming

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Snakes in the City (Alfred Kubin,1911, pen and ink)

 

 

Today Ferrebeekeeper travels again to the arid scrubland of the Sahal, on the hunt for one of the most ridiculously named inhabitants of all of the earth.  Well, actually I should clarify that this creature’s common English name is ridiculous.  Its proper Latin name sounds at least fairly proper–Steatomys cuppediusSteatomys cuppedius is a rodent which lives in the semi-tropical scrubland of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.  The little mouse seems to live a life not unlike that of other scrubland mice, but for some reason colonial taxonomists saddled it with the name “dainty fat mouse.”

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

Perhaps (or maybe I should say “hopefully”) your sense of humor is different from mine, but every time I read that phrase I burst out laughing. I keep imagining a fussy refined mouse sitting amidst chintz and porcelain and scarfing down cucumber sandwiches till it becomes morbidly obese.  It could be the subject of a children’s book, except I don’t think children read about things like that (at least not since the death of Roald Dahl).

Anyway, back in the real world, the dainty fat mouse (snicker) is apparently not common—but it lives in inaccessible and inhospitable places and it is not endangered.  Perhaps it will have the last laugh.  It is also photo-shy. I scoured the internet but I could not find a single photo of Steatomys cuppedius, so, during lunchtime, I broke out my colored pencils and drew my own picture.  This illustration may not be zoologically accurate, but it certainly conveys a lot of anxious personality (and maybe speaks to the zeitgeist beyond small rodents of the Sahal).  I also drew one of the magnificent alien mud mosques of Timbuktu in the background to give the dainty fat mouse a sense of place!

Artist's conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

Artist’s conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life.  And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world.  The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury.  Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so).  Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun.  The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals.  The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.

The mission featured a big surprise.  Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury.  This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings.  What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds.  According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering.  Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second).  This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater.  Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury.  Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts.  The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024.  Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!

Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above.  NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will.  Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere?  You should probably ignore that…

Whimsical Seascape (Wayne Ferrebee. 2015, watercolor, ink, and colored pencils on paper)

Whimsical Seascape (Wayne Ferrebee. 2015, watercolor, ink, and colored pencils on paper)

My New Year’s resolution wayyyy back in January was to show more of my art.  As with most New Year’s resolutions, I am having a pretty mixed record with that, but at least I have made a great deal more art, and I even had a couple of small local shows.  Anyway, to get back on track, I thought I would show you a piece from a big exciting project I have been working on.  I have been making an ornate & intricate art toy: this is one of the illustrations that goes with it.

I didn’t scan or format this properly. As you can see it’s just lying on my bedspread (I think my cat is just off screen waiting to pounce up and down on it).  However it should interest you because it has a surprising number of Ferrebeekeeper themes which got included by accident because they are always on my mind. A galleon is cutting through the azure waters off of some colonial trading post (probably in Indonesia, though this is really a fantasy piece, and it is hard to say anything for certain).  The European ship is passing a Chinese junk.  Both craft are menaced by a passing colossal squid as an oarfish undulates decoratively in the background.

The principle drama of the composition comes from a volcanic eruption which threatens the trading colony.  The spume of lava and dust from within the Earth is faintly echoed by a passing whale.  My favorite part of the composition is the pelican gobbling up a displaced moth (or maybe a fluttering soul expelled from the fires of the underworld by the eruption).  It is hard to tell whether this is a white pelican or a brown pelican—just like that infernal dress which took over the internet a few weeks ago.

I have no commentary on the frigate bird, the flying fish, or the canoe filled with hapless people being attacked by a giant shark.  You will have to find your own meaning for them.  Likewise, the Easter-egg colored balloon filled with aeronauts is a whimsical and fun addition.  Although I will say that maybe we, the viewers, are meant to identify most with the travelers in the balloon’s basket who are being whirled through this fabulous fantasy landscapes for pure amusement and delight.

Update: The way this is published hideously crops off the right side of my picture! I presume this is part of WordPress’ ongoing quest to make blogging a baffling anti-aesthetic nightmare (seriously, what is up with this new-ish GUI, “beep beep boop”?). Anyway, you can see the actual image (and bigger!) by clicking on it. Sigh…

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Today we are featuring a small painting by a contemporary painter, Mark Ryden (whose work has showed up on this blog before). This is “Queen Bee” a portrait which stands somewhat in contrast with Ryden’s usual style: although the painting does have the jewel-like illustration quality which constitutes half of his trademark; it notably lacks the dark narrative extravagance of earlier works. The best of Ryden’s oeuvre has the feel of a fairytale which has fallen through a dark hole in the world. “Queen Bee” is more elegiac. The emotionally empty pouting expression on the figure’s doll-like face works as a receptacle for whatever emotion the viewer wishes to project into it.

The glorious golden bee who is desperately assembling a hive from hair, grass, and leaves is the true subject of the work. Of course a single honey bee is an anomaly and a failure—honey bees are social organisms which can only survive and flourish as a hive. So the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions about the thematic meaning of the piece.

Although Ryden paints his own paintings (unlike many artworld superstars who leave lowly creative tasks to underpaid interns, apprentices, and assistants), he does hire Asian artisans to build the remarkable frames to spec. Look at how lovely the gilded hive is! Are these bees in the frame the real workers for the bee in the painting? There might be a subtle sting for the entire concept of fine art buried in that question.

Detail

Detail

This particular painting was made for charity. Ryden auctioned the piece off in the spring of last year and donated the proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund. While the piece did not fetch the princely multi-million dollar price associated with works by annointed art world insiders, you could certainly buy several houses in West Virginia with the proceeds. It is very good of Ryden to give to such a meaningful cause. One of these days, I’ll have to host a charity auction of my own paintings for the world’s endangered animals (sometime on down the road when I am not one of them).

A Hellmouth Structure from the "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster.  This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology.  Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.

Hellmouth close-up from "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art.  The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440.  The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise.  The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys.  Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.

From "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum.  Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).

A full page from the "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

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