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I hope you enjoyed the thrilling rise of the Hongwu Emperor as related in yesterday’s post. In accordance with the wishes of the editors who commissioned it, I left out the truly important parts—namely, how the Hongwu Emperor organized the Ming dynasty around Confucianist precepts, cunning agrarian reform, and above all—naked absolutism. I also left out the terrible end of Zhu Yuanzhe’s story arc: for the skills and guile which allowed the Hongwu Emperor to seize absolute power had a terrible shadow side. As an old man, he was seized by dreadful paranoia and employed vast armies of secret police, informers, and torturers to root out the imaginary plots which flowered on all sides of him. Hongwu killed hundreds of thousands of people by means of the most inventive and horrible tortures. Despite his astonishing feats, and despite the prosperity he brought to China, his name is permanently blackened by the depths of his cruelty (although Mao admired him).
It almost makes you wonder if leaders aren’t inherently flawed somehow: as though there is some fundamental problem with putting self-interested individuals in charge of our collective destiny.
But today’s post is not about leadership; it is about beautiful & delicate Chinese porcelain! It would be unthinkable to have a Ming Week which didn’t feature a fine Ming vase. Here is a Ming dynasty vessel from the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). The Jiajing emperor was a weakling and a fool who devoutly believed in all sorts of portent, rituals, astrology, and mystical claptrap. His courtiers and eunuchs used this to control him while they robbed the Empire to the brink of disaster. Infrastructure was neglected. Crooked courtiers ground the peasants down into crippling destitution. The social fabric unwound.
But what did the rich and powerful care when they lived in an era of such luxury? Porcelain of the Jiajing reign is particularly whimsical and otherworldly. This vase shows the “three friends” pine, bamboo, and plum growing together as emblems of wealth, happiness, and longevity. Each plant is twisted into an otherworldly logogram–a “shou” symbol. Here the plum blossoms forth out of a splendid stylized rock covered in lichen.
Look at the decorative elements! The waves, the scrolls, and the mystical vegetation which surround the three central plants all began as naturalistic forms—but by the time of the Jiajing era they have been transmuted into ethereal blue beauty. And yet the original forms are still there as well. It is hard to describe what gives this little ovoid vase its winsome charm, but the aesthetic effect is undeniable.
A photo of my garden in Brooklyn (April 17th, 2016)
Until last week it was a slow cold spring in Brooklyn—but, then, suddenly, the season sprang into action in a flurry of beautiful colors. The tulips leaped up out of nowhere–although the accursed squirrels are beheading them as fast as they bloom–and the cherry tree blossoms are just beginning to open (more about that later). Here is a picture of my garden the other day: you can see some of the classic Dutch-style tulips and the bleeding hearts over in the left corner.
However I wanted to draw your attention downwards to a flower that barely makes it into the picture because of its delicate tininess: the muscari or grape hyacinth—a diminutive but exceedingly lovely plant. Muscari originated in Central Asia, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin. The little flowers bloom in temperate woodlands of the region’s forests early in spring before the trees have a chance to set leaves. They propagate easily and can become beautiful purple, blue, and white carpets on the woodland floor. Muscari have escaped the garden and naturalized in parts of North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Grape hyacinths have that name for a reason: they are botryoidal and take the form of a pyramidal cluster of grapes (although each individual blossom is actually a tiny urn). The effect is enchanting up close. At a distance the little urns become indistinguishable. In fact the individual plants blend together into an amalgamated mass of color–and what a color. The finest feature of grape hyacinths are the exquisite hues. They come in pale blue, white, and (lately) steely pink, but the most characteristic color is also the finest—an incredible blue-violet with a glaucous shimmer.
I have always wanted a vast field of muscari, because they begin to take on the otherworldy haunting qualities of their relatives, the bluebells. From a distance, large numbers of muscari look like rivers or oceans or the surface of alien aquatic worlds. They are just beautiful! Hopefully mine will keep expanding so that future springs will be even more dramatic.
Gustave Courbet was preeminent among the realist painters of nineteenth century France. Although he rejected the romanticism of the previous epoch of painting, there was often a certain robust drama to his paintings—which frequently portrayed dark hunting scenes, stormy waves, and tempestuous mistresses. This painting however is a real exception: here is a delightfully undramatic summer beachscape. Hazy half-cumulus clouds melt into the aqua sky above a yellow strip of sand. Small practical fishing vessels bake in the sun as sailboats drift by on the offing.
Although this is a view of the beach as it appeared in the 1860s, there is something timeless about it. In real life the simple painting seems alive with the sounds and sunlight of the Atlantic coast—you almost expect a seagull to fly out of it (hopefully that comes across from the digital image—it is hard to look at art online). Courbet’s work was a bridge not just away from the tempestuous Romantic art of the first half-of the nineteenth century, but towards the liveliness and freedom of impressionism. This simple but powerful work really shows how he could enliven a familiar landscape with bravura brushwork!
Hopefully the long winter is coming to a close (although I wouldn’t be surprised if 2014 still has a few mean tricks left). Before the season of ice and snow ends, let’s give in to winter and celebrate frozen water itself with a gallery of exquisite ice sculptures.
The quintessential ice sculpture should feature elegance, sinuous curves, strength, and, well, iciness. Of course nothing combines these qualities quite like swans. The massive waterfowl are thematically and stylistically perfect for the medium. Additionally, since swans form monogamous pair bonds which can last for years–or even for life—paired swans are the perfect symbol for weddings, romantic events, and, um… mergers I guess (hey, you try figuring out why swans are so omnipresent as ice sculptures).
Ok, maybe I wanted to write a quick waterfowl/winter theme blog post and was out of good ideas. Yet ephemeral ice sculptures DO seem to represent the disposable decadence of our times. Who knows when global climate change, world economic meltdown, or zombie attack will sweep away our world of endless energy and leisure? But in the mean time enjoy the flock of swan sculptures. You can even buy an inexpensive plastic mold online if you want to have a brand new (but perfectly identical) swan statue for every meal.
The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is an Arctic gamebird from the grouse family. It lives in northern regions of Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China. The birds are capable of surviving in extremely harsh winter conditions: indeed they do not fly south during the Arctic winter. Instead they hunker down to last out the 24 hour long nights of bitter ice and cold. In order to survive in permafrost landscapes, ptarmigans have water and wind proof feathers (which seal the chilling moisture away from their insulating down). They also have feathered feet which act like snowshoes—their taxonomical name “Lagopus” comes from Greek roots meaning “hare foot”). Ptarmigans are omnivores and they eat insects, seeds, berries, and leaves during the fleeting summers. More remarkably, during the brutal winter months they can find food in the form of catkins, twigs, and buds buried beneath the snow and ice.
Not only are ptarmigans adapted to the cold, they are also astonishing masters of camouflage. In winter they can fledge to become completely white. In spring and fall the birds are white with black and gray blotches. During the summer, the birds’ plumage becomes brown and yellow so they can blend in with the gorse and lichen. The following two pictures of brooding mothers should illustrate this point: the mama ptarmigans are hard to find even though they are pretty much the only things in the pictures!
In spring male ptarmigans find a mate by emitting a guttural croak (although there is also a correlation between the size of a male’s comb and his testosterone level). Females lay up to six eggs. Even in the egg, ptarmigans are masters of being inconspicuous. Their eggs are stippled with spots and specks in order to blend in seamlessly with the rocks and tundra for the brief moments that ptarmigans are not sitting their nests.
During the last ice age, the rock ptarmigan had an even wider range (which is astonishing, considering how widespread the birds are today). Ptarmigans are a beautiful and timeless emblem of the north. Vikings carved the birds on knife hilts and the creatures are also a mainstay of Sami and Inuit art.
Today’s bland but pretty post features a bland but pretty color—and one which traces its roots back to the beginnings of agriculture! Cream is the color of, well… cream. If one milks a grazing animal (cow, goat, sheep, camel, mare, etc…) the milkfat will rise up to the top of the bucket. Cream from grazing animals takes on a lovely pale yellow color from carotenoid pigments which occur in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of meadow plants. This effect is greatly attenuated in processed cream from factory-farmed milk, so, if you want the original effect as appreciated by Roman and Medieval colorists, you will have to wonder up to a green mountain pasture and milk the goats yourself as though you were Heidi (eds note: please, please do not wander around unfamiliar mountain pastures and grab at the teats of strange ruminants!).
Cream was a premium source of energy, nutrients, and sustenance throughout recorded history (and a costly ingredient in the foodstuffs of the rich and privileged for just as long). Cream shows up in Homer, the Bible, Roman pastoral poems, Scandinavian sagas, and Renaissance metaphysical poetry. Throughout all of these times, the word has been used as a description of the pale yellow/off-white color.
As a renter, I have a bitterness towards the color cream: rental flats are invariably painted cream because: 1) cream does not show dirt and age as much as white; 2) the bright color still makes rooms seem spacious and bright; and 3) you can always paint over it. Yet as an artist, I love cream color! It is perfect for vestal virgins, angel wings, and abandoned human skulls lying around dragon warrens! Cream is the highlight color of flesh seen in incandescent light and it forms the shadow side of clouds on perfectly bright sunny days. Even the oil-primed Belgian linen that painters like to paint on is cream-colored.
Because the color strikes such a note with humankind for aesthetic and historical reasons, a great many birds and animals have it in their Latin or common names. Thanks to the ancient ties between cream and luxuriant desserts, it also has a strange double life as an aristocratic color (which belies its use on the walls of rental garrets). As I keep writing, I realize how complex my feelings are about this beautiful pastel color….
Don’t expect any resolution–you will have to figure out how you feel about the multitudinous meanings and associations of cream on your own!
No doubt you have noticed how different clothing stores have the same color palette for their wares. If you walk from Banana Republic to Uniqlo to Armani Exchange, you will see remarkably different garments at wildly different prices…and yet the colors are all the same (and the opposing colors suit each other beautifully). The effect even stretches to kitchen and home goods stores: so if you are particularly obsessed you can probably match your underwear, your blender, and your divan—as long as you buy them in the same year (and also assuming you buy divans). The reason for this phenomenon is that every year the mughals of fashion, trendiness, and color itself get together and proclaim a color palette for the year.
In practice, international corporations tend to defer to Pantone, a company based in New Jersey for this palette. Every year Pantone (allegedly) convenes a secret quorum of fashionistas, artists, Illuminati, scientists, sorcerers, and what not in an unknown European capital to choose the color which most accurately expresses the zeitgeist of all human endeavor for a year. [When I was imprisoned in the legal industry, a strange coworker who was really “in the scene” during the eighties confided that what all this really means is that a gay man with a sharp eye chooses the palette, Pantone reviews it, and everyone else gets told what colors to use. This sounds quite plausible, but I have no way of verifying the truth of the allegation. Pantone has grown much savvier at marketing nonsense since the eighties…as indeed has everyone except for me, alas].
Anyway, the official color of the year of 2014 is [insert royal fanfare with horns] “Radiant Orchid” an extremely pretty mid-tone purple/lavender. To celebrate, I have illustrated this article with radiant orchid pictures (at least to such an extent my computer’s ever changing screen and my own eyes can replicate the hue). Undoubtedly the other colors you see at shops this year will all perfectly match radiant orchid. Pantone announces the color of the year for free, but if you would like to see the associated palette you will have to order the proprietary information from Pantone View.
As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, I feel that “the color of the year” is a bit silly (not radiant orchid, which I find very fetching, but the concept itself), yet I do like the idea of a unified palette and I like the fact that favorite colors change with the era in accordance to a larger consensus of human taste. Perhaps someday we will all smile with bittersweet nostalgia as we think back on 2014 with its mild lavender in the same way that my parents talk about mustard and avocado or my grandparents talk about baby blue. In the meantime, if purple is your thing you should feel happy, and if not you should start pulling strings right now to influence the mystery color of 2015.
Celadon is a lovely muted shade of pale green which became famous as a porcelain glaze long ago in ancient dynastic China. Although the technique for making the glaze was invented during the Tang dynasty, the zenith of celadon porcelain making was attained during the Sung dynasty when so many of the aesthetic conventions of Chinese culture came into flower.
The perfect serenity of well-made celadon vessels has been compared to Buddhist enlightenment. Additionally, according to ancient folklore, celadon serviceware and drinking vessels would change color in the presence of poison. Sadly this latter fact is an outright myth, however if the lie resulted in more celadon being produced then perhaps it was worth a few surprised dead Chinese nobles. Celadon porcelain is magnificent.
The world is a strange place filled with astonishing and bizarre animals. Among the strangest creatures are those which are transparent*—animals which barely seem to be there because the tissues that make up their bodies are permeable to light. There are transparent catfish, transparent insects, transparent crustaceans, and even transparent frogs (to say nothing of cnidarians, the majority of which are transparent!). Today’s post however concerns transparent mollusks. In addition to having transparent bodies some of these incredible invertebrates have transparent shells, can invert their bodies, or can glow. Check them out:
The Glass Squid (Teuthowenia pellucida) also known as the googly-eyed glass squid lives throughout the oceans of the southern hemisphere. The creature is about 200 millimeters (8 inches) long and has light organs on its eyes. Although transparent it has a bluish cast and it possesses the ability to roll into a ball or to inflate itself. These tricks do not always work and the little squid is frequently eaten by weird deep-sea fish and sharks.
Recently discovered in a huge cave system in Croatia, Zospeum tholussum, is a small delicate snail with a transparent shell.
This pterotracheid heteropod mollusk is a member of the Carinaria genus. It lives in the open ocean and flaps through the water scooping up plankton in a modified snail foot. Just as its snail foot has changed into a swimming/harvesting organ, the mollusk’s shell has shrunk into near nonexistence.
Vitrelladonella Richardi is a deepwater pelagic octopus found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. The little octopus only measures 80cm (2.6ft) in length. Like many of these almost invisible mollusks very little is known about how it lives, but it is certainly beautiful in a very alien and otherworldly way.
*The author of this opinion piece is opaque. His opinion may not represent the larger community of organisms.